Colleges plan virtual graduation ceremonies as pandemic challenges continue

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Citing concerns about crowd size and the potential for COVID-19 spread, both Northern Maine Community College and the University of Maine at Presque Isle are opting for virtual graduation ceremonies in May.

In years before the pandemic, NMCC would welcome around 1,500 to 2,000 people to The Forum, a venue that allowed for a greater number of family and community members than NMCC’s gymnasium. 

But with new daily COVID-19 cases remaining high throughout the state, President Tim Crowley noted, social distancing and working to prevent the spread of illness would be too great a challenge to hold a formal live ceremony.

“Nothing replaces the moment you see graduates walk across the stage and receive their diplomas,” Crowley said. “But we feel that a virtual ceremony is the best option for our campus community this year.”

This sign marks the entrance to Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle.
(Paula Brewer | The Star-Herald)

The structure of NMCC’s graduation will be similar to what graduates and family members viewed in 2020. The ceremony will consist of prerecorded speeches from faculty, administrative leaders and the college’s Student of the Year, and will premiere on NMCC’s Facebook page and YouTube channel at 10 a.m. Saturday, May 8.

NMCC is sending all 173 graduating students their caps and gowns free of charge and offering formal picture taking at the college library. The cap and gown photos will be featured in the ceremony’s slideshow presentation that honors all graduates and states the degree each student is earning.

With this year’s ceremony, Crowley hopes that students are able to take pride in their accomplishments and reflect on the perseverance that has led to them graduating amidst a global pandemic.

“It’s important for us to recognize how these students have earned their degrees while being in the middle of a pandemic for most of those two years,” Crowley said. “It has taken a tremendous amount of persistence for them to make it through online learning and all the changes that have happened.”

UMPI is also planning to hold a virtual ceremony similar to that of 2020, with students receiving free caps and gowns and submitting photos and messages to correspond with their place on the slideshow. President Ray Rice and other members of the UMPI faculty, trustees and student body will record speeches that will air as part of the formal ceremony at 10:30 a.m.  on Saturday, May 8.

In addition, UMPI is holding small-scale graduation activities during the final week of classes, none of which will be open to the public or to family members of graduating students. Any student who lives locally or on campus will be invited to walk across the stage with members of their respective majors and receive their diplomas. No more than 50 people will be allowed in the event space at any time.

That same week all academic programs and athletic teams will host individual celebrations for their graduates while complying with CDC social distancing guidelines. 

“Students who are here on campus wanted that opportunity to walk across the stage and celebrate with their friends,” Ray said, about the motivation behind the on-campus activities.

With many students learning from a distance and unable to travel to campus, UMPI officials decided that recording the full graduation ceremony for online viewing would be the best way to honor all 174 graduates. Faculty members will set up Zoom chats with each program’s graduates so students can connect with one another and celebrate after the premiere.

During the ceremony UMPI will recognize two honorary degree recipients. Larry Shaw, president of MMG Insurance, appeared in last year’s graduation but will give a longer address on May 8. Kris Doody, CEO of Cary Medical Center, has been named the recipient for UMPI’s 2021 honorary degree.

All students who graduated in 2020 and 2021 will be invited to take part in next year’s graduation, with campus leaders hoping for a more traditional, in-person ceremony, Rice said.

“We reached out to students [about their preferred graduation plans] and realized that going virtual would be the best way to make sure we include everyone in the ceremony,” Rice said.

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