Jayme Henderson says her college's decision to cancel fall graduation over coronavirus concerns felt like "a slap in the face."
Henderson, a graduating senior at the University of Missouri in Columbia, remembers thinking about the campus activities that hadn't been cancelled: Football was still on, with fans still able to attend games in-person, and there were even some in-person classes. To make matters worse, the email cancelling fall commencement arrived the same day as another email detailing parking restrictions for big game day crowds.
"I wouldn't be upset if it was all or nothing," Henderson says. "It seems like the university is picking and choosing what events are important to have, which doesn't really seem fair."
As coronavirus case numbers continue to increase across the nation, many colleges have canceled in-person fall graduation ceremonies, which are usually held in December. Official announcements often cite health concerns. But several students told NPR that these cancellations came while other in-person activities were allowed to take place, leading to confusion and frustration among graduating seniors.
"I completely understand safety first," Henderson says, "but it just seems like it's possible."
"The one thing that we all came here to do"
Across the country, students have started petitions in hopes of getting their institutions to reconsider hosting in-person graduation ceremonies. The petitions offer suggestions on how graduations could still be held safely. For instance: limiting the number of guests each student can bring and assigning sections for each family. Many petitions also call attention to the large, in-person events that are still on.
The University of Missouri petition, which Henderson helped organize, notes, "It is difficult for students to accept that Mizzou is able to hold football games with 20,000 guests but refuse to provide us with a socially distanced commencement alternative to do the one thing that we all came here to do: celebrate our achievement of graduating."
University of Missouri spokesperson Christian Basi tells NPR that the school canceled December graduation because it couldn't guarantee safety. "We have individuals come from all 50 states and foreign countries to see commencement ceremonies. We don't have the resources to screen everyone."
He says the university decided not to hold a commencement ceremony in the football stadium because winters in Missouri are unpredictable, and it wouldn't be fair to ask families to plan for that. "Football plays in any kind of weather. ... And fans can decide if they want to come and brave the weather or not," he explains. The university is still committed to holding an in-person graduation for the entire class of 2020 when it is safe to do so, Basi says.
A Florida State University petition suggests a venue change: "All 2020 football season, FSU has been hosting limited-capacity games. Less than 3,000 students will be graduating from Florida State University in December 2020. Doak Campbell Stadium can hold 79,560 occupants. This is more than enough space to safely host a commencement ceremony for our graduates."
Florida State has not announced plans for a spring 2021 commencement. University spokesperson Amy Farnum-Patronis says the cancellation of the in-person ceremony came after a directive from the Florida Board of Governors and the State University System..
"In addition, with FSU moving entirely to remote classes after the Thanksgiving break, having students and family members return to Tallahassee in December poses further health and logistical challenges," Farnum-Patronis says.
"It's for the community of people behind me"
For many students, earning a degree and walking across the stage isn't only an accomplishment for themselves but also for their families.
Graduating senior Miles Feacher helped organize the Florida State petition.
"My main motivation for creating a petition was because there are a lot of first-generation graduates, and this is like a moment of a lifetime for them," he says. "Hosting football games, but taking this moment away from students seems so crazy."
Feacher is a child of immigrants himself.
"I'm not walking across the stage to prove a point or even for myself. It's for the community of people behind me," he says. "I think that's a shared sentiment for a lot of students, especially students of color and immigrants."
Students like Camilla Williams, also a graduating senior at Florida State. She says her graduation means the world to her parents, who are originally from Jamaica.
"My parents didn't get to go to college. They didn't get to experience everything that I'm experiencing," Williams explains. "They worked really hard to make sure my sister and I could go to college to get a good education. This is really for them."
Williams says she was disappointed when Florida State cancelled in-person graduation, but she has come to terms with the fact that she will not be able to walk across the stage to celebrate this major milestone.
"The importance of donning the cap and gown"
Some in-person graduations have taken place during the pandemic. In August, Benedict College, a small historically black college in Columbia, S.C., hosted a graduation ceremony in its football stadium. Benedict usually has about 250 to 300 graduates a year, but only 180 students were able to return for the August ceremony.
"It was important for us to do this for our students. They deserved this," explains Roslyn Clark Artis, president of Benedict College.
Graduates stayed 6 feet apart and wore masks, and while families were not invited, the ceremony was live streamed on various platforms for loved ones to watch.
"We wanted to make it really special for the students," Artis says, "so as the students were leaving, the music started and the firework show began. That was a happy surprise for the kids."
Benedict College doesn't host fall commencements — instead, the school invites fall graduates to the spring ceremony, which it plans to do again this year.
Artis says she would recommend a socially distanced ceremony to other universities and colleges.
"The importance of donning the cap and gown and marching across the stage to receive a diploma, cannot be understated."
But she acknowledges it's harder to pull off at larger institutions, with thousands of graduating students.
Fall graduations can also be tougher to accomplish in colder climates.
Instead, many colleges are offering make-up ceremonies tentatively scheduled for the spring.
Baylor University has pushed in-person fall graduation to May 2021, and Baylor University senior Kennedy Kinnard says she'll be there. "This is major to me," she says, "so I'm definitely going to come back."
As a Black student, Kinnard says Baylor wasn't always the friendliest place, so graduation feels like a double accomplishment.
For other students, coming back six months later isn't so appealing.
Jayme Henderson at the University of Missouri says, "I think by then the moment would have passed."
Adedayo Akala is an intern on the NPR Business Desk.