By Leischen Stelter
Managing Editor, In Public Safety, and Online Learning Tips Contributor
Graduation ceremonies are a celebratory rite of passage for students. For those graduating in 2020, the novel coronavirus cancelled traditional in-person commencements, leaving administrators scrambling to find a way to celebrate this academic finale.
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American Public University System, composed of American Military University and American Public University, is a 100-percent online university, which hosts a spectacular in-person commencement ceremony every year. For the past 10 years, approximately 10,000 people – graduates, their families, faculty members and staff – gather from all parts of the world at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland, for the grand celebration.
This year, the coronavirus forced the cancellation of APUS’s commencement exercise. Canceling wasn’t a decision university leadership took lightly, said April Airhart, the Director of University Events, whose team of four staff members spend nearly a full year planning for the massive annual in-person event.
“We looked at all the different angles, including the health and safety of our graduates, their guests, and our faculty and staff. We also considered the impact it would have on our graduates, mentally, to have such a big thing taken away from them,” she said. “In the end, our leadership and board made the right call to cancel the event.”
As Airhart prepared her team to answer the predicted onslaught of questions from graduates, she was surprised by the response. “We didn’t get as many questions as we thought from our university community, so that told us we made the right decision,” she noted.
Despite the disappointment of canceling the live ceremony, university leadership wanted to find a meaningful way to celebrate this educational milestone. So APUS decided to hold a virtual commencement ceremony instead.
“We wanted to hold the event on Saturday, May 16, and celebrate it on the same day our graduates had expected commencement to happen,” Airhart said. That gave her team only eight weeks to plan and execute a virtual event for which they had no experience.
Creating a Meaningful Virtual Commencement
Airhart and her team started researching virtual events and creating a plan for APUS. As the communications chair for the North American Association of Communications Officers (NAACO) she reached out to other members for information, researching what other universities were doing and tasking her team with coming up with their own ideas for the virtual ceremony.
It was decided that the virtual commencement would be an hour-long ceremony hosted on Facebook Live. The master of ceremonies was Provost Dr. Vernon Smith. There were two student speakers: one representing the undergraduate class and the other the graduate-level class.
Also, there were congratulatory messages from faculty members, staff and alumni along with an invitation for graduates to join the in-person 2021 ceremony. The ceremony concluded with a speech by President Dr. Wally Boston — the last in his 16-year tenure as President of APUS — who concluded the ceremony by leading a live traditional tassel turn with graduates.
In addition to the Facebook Live event, each graduate was sent an email with a video from the Dean of their school, congratulating them on their academic accomplishments. Graduates who had RSVP’d to attend the in-person ceremony were also sent a box with university gifts and their ceremonial certificate. In addition, a donation was made in honor of the Class of 2020 to the non-profit Rise Against Hunger, for which graduates would have participated during the in-person graduation weekend.
All 2020 graduates are also invited to attend the in-person commencement ceremony planned for May 22, 2021. “We’ve heard from many graduates that they plan to come in 2021, and we’re going to make sure we do something really special for them,” said Airhart.
Challenges of Remotely Producing Video for a Virtual Commencement
While Airhart’s team led the organizing effort, producing a virtual commencement required collaboration with other teams within the university. Since it was critical to have high-quality video segments, Airhart solicited the help of Lisa Tanis, senior manager of video production in the marketing department. “This was all new territory for us,” said Tanis. “We had to try to come up with a way the speakers could record themselves and we could help talk them through it.”
The first major hurdle was making sure they had the right equipment. Tanis’ crew sent all the speakers an iPad that would record their segment and a tripod that had a teleprompter app built into it with a pre-loaded script, as well as microphones, lights, and stands.
They set up a Google Hangout for a pre-production call. “We did a test run to help them set up the equipment and made sure they knew how to operate it before the recording session,” explained Tanis. “We would direct them to turn a light off, move the camera up—everything we would do in person, we had to do remotely. That took the most time just to figure out the technical aspects of how to record people.”
When they were satisfied with the set-up, the speakers recorded their segments. They would then upload the files and Tanis’ team would view them to make sure they were recorded properly in high-quality video and sound. It took each speaker one to three hours to record their short segments.
Staying Organized and On-Task
Hosting any large event requires an extreme amount of coordination and organization, but creating a virtual commencement in only a few short weeks required intense project oversight.
“Things were constantly changing this year and we thought it was going in one direction and then it went in a different direction,” said Jonathan Berens, senior project manager in the marketing department.
“It’s important that someone keeps everyone aligned and together so one single person knows all aspects of commencement,” he added. This organizational system started years ago for commencement, and the university relied on it heavily to create the virtual commencement.
One of the biggest challenges for Berens was continuously preventing “scope creep” from affecting the project and making sure that tasks were being completed on time and fully. “The skill I’ve found most useful is knowing that no two people will react and respond the same way,” Berens said. “I have to figure out how to communicate with different people, because everyone has their own way of doing things and I have to figure out how to help them be successful.”
He also has to stay ahead of the project. “I’m constantly taking information to a central location to keep track of everything,” Berens said. “I constantly know who has the action and who has the ball and I’m trying to stay a step ahead of my projects – five steps if I can.”
Working to Keep Things in Perspective
Creating a virtual commencement in the midst of a global pandemic and within a short period of time was stressful, but it was critical for organizers to keep in mind the bigger picture.
“For our graduates, this is a big accomplishment in their life and we can’t lose sight of that moment for them,” said Berens. “That really helped center me and remind me why we’re doing this as an organization.”
It was also important to recognize the reality of the situation. “In the times we’re living in right now, we can’t have complete control, so we have to do the best we can,” said Tanis.
While everyone worked hard to put together the best event possible, it was important to keep things in perspective. “We tried to keep things light and found that humor was the only cure for all of it. We tried not to take any of the work too seriously,” added Airhart.
“I was really worried we weren’t going to be able to pull off a virtual commencement in eight weeks, but we did it because we all worked together,” she said. “I’m really grateful for everyone’s help. My team killed it, and everyone was so supportive and that’s what made it successful.”
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At American Public University, students are priority one. We are committed to providing quality education, superior student resources, and affordable tuition. In fact, while post-secondary tuition has risen sharply nationwide, the university continues to offer affordable tuition without sacrificing academic quality.