The Commencement that Wasn’t: Class of 2020

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Last year, graduates of the New England College Class of 2020 received their diplomas in the mail; that was it.

“That unique feeling NEC has of making you feel like an individual rather than a number or a dollar sign was lost a bit during that time,” said Hannah Nelson, former Senior Class President for the Class of 2020, while adding, “I would not trade my four years at NEC for anything. I have gained so much knowledge, experience and friendships that will continue to leave a positive impact on my life.”

For many graduates, Commencement is the wedding day of their education. It is the momentous montage of memories and achievements cultivated over four years commemorated in the act of walking across the stage, diploma in hand, and tassel turned as if to direct you toward the next steps of life. The graduates of 2020 did not get the opportunity to have this moment, there was no in-person graduation and there was no virtual celebration.

“The lack of celebration for the class of 2020 was truly upsetting. I got sent my degree in the mail with a written letter with my name just copied and pasted in,” said 2020 graduate and former secretary of the EAC, Hailey Page.

On March 24th of 2020, shortly after New England College had made the transition online due to the spread of the novel Coronavirus, President Perkins announced that the 73rd Commencement of New England College scheduled to take place on May 9th, 2020 would move forward virtually. In President Perkins’ email of March 24th, she also extended the invitation for the Class of 2020 to join the Class of 2021 on the Simon Lawn to merge graduations.

But then things changed.

Provost Wayne Lesperance explained some of the reasons for the decision to not have a May commencement celebration: “Last May’s commencement cancellation was made in late March as I recall based on our transition to remote teaching and learning on March 16th, 2020. At the time, we had no way of knowing how the pandemic would affect our campus and our ability to carry out functions. Determinations by the Governor’s office and recommendations from the CDC limited the number of individuals who could gather together. As a result, the President, in consultation with Senior Team, the NEC Board of Trustees and with advice from the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, took the decision to not host a live commencement.”

Lesperance further explained why a virtual commencement was cancelled: “The decision not to host a virtual commencement was taken at around the same time – a week or two later – as we determined that we could not bring together all of the components necessary to host a proper commencement exercise. These components include the necessary speakers, honorary degree recipients, members of the Board of Trustees, members of the senior administration, graduate, and online students and even some undergraduate seniors. It’s important to remember at this point we had less than a month under our belt using Zoom and at the time did not have the experience or resources to take on something as important as Commencement while also managing the institution during the start of a pandemic.”

“It was a very difficult time,” Lesperance concluded.

Nelson began talking with administrators early on in the decision-making process.

“When a large group of seniors met via zoom with administrators in the spring of last year, they had asked if we would still like the online celebration on what would have been our actual commencement ceremony day in May,” Nelson explained. “Under the impression that we were having an in-person celebration in October, we declined the offer.”

Nelson had originally created a petition and spoke out for her class. “The first decision that did not include a possible fall celebration, but rather I believe just an invitation to come back the following year [May 2021], felt dismissive. Especially having heard of other institutions holding ceremonies at the Northeast Delta Dental Stadium of the Fisher Cats.”

Shortly after sending her initial email and receiving feedback from the Class of 2020, President Perkins announced that she had concluded that an in-person Fall Commencement on the Simon Green would be possible and would occur on October 4th of 2020, during Alumni Weekend. This gave the expectation that graduates would be able to congregate on the Covered Bridge, have the opportunity to march across the green grass with the procession, and have a tangible graduation to celebrate.

However, the spread of the novel Coronavirus was not slowing by October of 2020 and the graduation that was intended to take place over Alumni weekend was canceled.

“The conditions in the state that would allow for any gatherings was still limited by the Governor of New Hampshire. We had no mechanism by which we could safely or legally bring the community together for a live commencement,” Lesperance stated.

“With the cancellation of October’s ceremony, we have not had an official celebration of our class,” Nelson said. Another graduate of 2020 and Women’s Rugby Captain, Cat Seaver, added, “I wish there had been more transparency because it seemed like after the fall festival did not work out, we didn’t really get any information on what was happening. It was almost like they forgot about us.”

Lesperance provided a different view: “In broader terms, the President communicated on multiple occasions with all members of our community including students, staff, faculty and parents via email, on social media, and through the college website.”

The Class of 2020, just like the Class of 2021, actively advocated for an in-person graduation. Students cultivated ideas that would allow New England College to safely conduct an in-person ceremony. “I made an attempt to convey how we as a class wanted to have some type of in-person celebration, no matter how limited or small it may have been,” Nelson explained.

“We certainly worked through many options [different methods of having commencement] . . . As noted above, we have limitations on how commencement could be conducted safely and legally,” Lesperance stated.

New England College did not offer a virtual graduation for the Class of 2020 after canceling the in-person commencement that was originally scheduled for October 4th of 2020.

“Initially, when I saw other institutions having actual celebrations, I was jealous. We [Class of 2020] did not get anything. However, I know that even if I did get some sort of virtual ceremony, I would not have been happy about it because nothing can come close to the physical experience,” Seaver explained.

“Many of my peers got minimally a zoom ceremony, which showed how other universities care enough to recognize their students’ achievements,” Page added.

Nelson additionally acknowledged the loss that first-generation college students would be feeling as a result of not having a commencement. “It’s heartbreaking to know that students who were first-generation college students won’t have that incredible feeling of accomplishment walking across the stage with their diploma in hand. I wish there had been an attempt to celebrate my class in-person. Even if it had been limited to just undergraduates, something would have been better than nothing.”

The lack of a commencement celebration and validation of the accomplishments of the class of 2020 has left some graduates frustrated and hurt by the way the college handled the situation.

“I feel truly screwed over by New England College. I feel as though they really only care about the money. You seriously could not take the time to make a zoom meeting to congratulate the class? Very disappointed by the administration at NEC,” Page expressed.

“In my 22 years of working at New England College, I have never seen anything like COVID-19 and the impact it has had on our community,” Lesperance said. “The pandemic has caused a tremendous amount of pain for a great many people on our campus, in our community, throughout our country, and across the world. I am sorry for it all.”

Lesperance continued,  “There is nothing good, fun, or particularly rewarding about having to cancel commencement for anyone involved, especially all of our undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral students who missed out on this special ceremony through no fault of their own. I am especially sorry that this disease has forever impacted the Class of 2020 and their loved ones.”

“We very much understood the circumstances of the state of the world, but again that dismissive feeling was still present. Especially knowing we would soon be receiving the emails and letters as alumni asking for donations,” Nelson said.

When asked what New England College could provide to try and mend the gap between them and their graduates, Page stated, “It would be nice to maybe just have a chance to go back to the school; even just have a celebration outside to celebrate all of our hard work, get my picture on the bridge in my cap and gown. All my parents wanted was a picture of me with my cap and gown and cords to hang up.”

Page and other graduates want a sense of normalcy, to have a day where they were celebrated for the first-year students they came in as and the seasoned graduates they left as.

Perhaps they will someday get their wish.

In a March 22, 2021 email to the NEC community, President Perkins wrote: “As I have mentioned previously, we will invite the graduates of 2020 and 2021 to campus sometime next year (assuming we can again be allowed to gather in groups) and host an in-person celebration of our graduates’ achievements.”

Despite frustrations and hurt, Page and Seaver acknowledged the parts of their undergraduate careers that they take comfort in despite losing the on-campus celebration that would have provided closure to their undergraduate degrees.

“I greatly appreciate all of my professors for my great education and would not want to put any of this on them. It is great to have gotten such a great education from my professors at New England College in a short three years,” Page said.

Seaver added, “I have had a lot of positive experiences at NEC and that will not be forgotten. I just hope NEC will continue trying to improve things for its students and let their voices be heard.”

This May, the class of 2021 will have a virtual commencement. Neither class will be seen on the Simon Green donning robes and regalia.

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