Chatham pursues hybrid spring commencement due to pandemic

This year’s graduation experience mimics that of life pre-pandemic, but changes are in place to keep students safe. As a senior with immunocompromised parents, Courtney Hayes gives her perspective on the upcoming events and her 2020 college experience.


Courtney Hayes, BS Environmental Science. Picture Credit: Courtney Hayes and GradImages.

Gena Carter

Chatham University’s 2021 graduation experience will feature an in-person graduation toast and abbreviated commencement ceremony, as well as a fully virtual commencement program open to the public.

This plan differs from last year’s entirely virtual spring and fall commencements.

“We didn’t do this last year,” Emily Fidago, director of student engagement, said, “but last year was just so different. We started planning [commencement] in February, and last year, everything hit and closed down in mid-March. 

“There wasn’t even the thought that we could try to do something because … no one really understood how [COVID-19] was spreading,” she continued. “Now, there is a better understanding, and that allows us to plan a few things and feel confident that we are keeping everyone safe.”

While students understood the reason for the changes last year, many were still saddened to not be able to gather and celebrate the graduates.

“You felt so bad for [the students] last year,” Courtney Hayes ’21 said. “It was all just like, ‘OK, you’re graduated congratulations,’ you know? You didn’t get anything. You didn’t get that celebration, to walk across the stage …”

On April 23, the in-person commencement ceremony will feature graduating students walking across the Campbell Memorial Chapel stage in their regalia and receiving their diploma. Students interested in attending were asked to select their preferred time slots to ensure social distancing.

Students will be in groups of 15-30 for their time slot and will be lined up in the chapel in a socially distant manner. President Dr. David Finegold will make his remarks, and students will walk down the Chapel aisle, receive their diploma and get their picture taken.

The ceremony will be livestreamed for family members, as well as recorded to be included in the virtual commencement program on April 25, but the in-person experience will likely not be shown in its entirety.

The virtual commencement will also include remarks from various guest speakers. This year, the student speakers are Tristan Palmer, bachelor of arts in biology, and Brooke Duplantier, master of arts in food studies. The guest speaker is Marita Garrett, Chatham alumna and mayor of Wilkinsburg.

A toast to the graduates

A graduation toast will be held on April 22 on the Old Quad from 4 to 6:30 p.m. It will be split into two sessions, one starting at 4 p.m. and the other at 5:30 p.m. The event will combine elements of the traditional senior dinner and a graduation toast curated by the Office of Alumni Relations.

This year’s graduation toast will include heavy appetizers, cocktails and champagne. The first 100 guests will also receive a gift bag. 

Students interested in attending were asked to sign up for one of the two sessions. Between 5 and 5:30 p.m., the area will be thoroughly sanitized to mitigate the risk of spreading COVID-19 to keep students safe.

Planning for commencement begins months in advance, and the decision for the upcoming fall commencement will likely be decided early next semester. The decision will depend on the state of the pandemic.

“I so hope we can be back in person [in the fall],” Dr. Jenna Templeton, vice president of Academic Affairs, said. “Commencement is my absolute favorite tradition because it’s the culmination of all the hard work of our students and their families. I certainly hope we can be back in-person. … Even if we can’t have many guests, even if we could have just the students there for the ceremony, I would be beyond overjoyed.”

Eden Hall celebration

In addition to the school-wide commencement proceedings, specific departments are having their own smaller celebrations to commemorate their students on their education.

For example, the Falk School of Sustainability & Environment (FSSE) is holding a celebration for its graduates at Eden Hall on April 24. The Falk School includes bachelor’s and master’s programs in sustainability, food studies and environmental science. Approximately 10 students (undergraduate and graduate) are graduating from the Falk School this year.  The program will run from noon to 1:30 p.m. and, tentatively will include a coffee bar, an ice cream bar, a photo booth and remarks from FSSE’s dean, Lou Leonard, and students.

Each student is permitted to bring one guest, and the celebration will be livestreamed for family members unable to attend.

At Eden Hall, the hope is that this celebration will become a tradition, even after the pandemic is over.

A bittersweet time

Hayes is looking forward to Eden Hall’s ceremony.

“I still can’t believe I am going to graduate,” she said. “It hasn’t sunk in yet.”

While Hayes is confident that all the commencement celebrations are safe for students, there is still a sense that something is missing from the graduation experience.

“I feel like this should be a very happy time,” she said, “and I am very happy to be privileged enough to get a college education, especially at a private university, but I feel like some of the happiness has been diminished.”

Some of that happiness has been diminished by the shared pandemic experience, but Hayes has had to deal with the additional complications associated with having two immunocompromised parents. This has impacted how she can celebrate her graduation, and how she has experienced college.

Hayes’ mother was diagnosed with T-cell leukemia in 2018, during Hayes’s sophomore year of college. Her mother is on immunosuppressants to manage her symptoms, Hayes said, increasing her risk of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms.

After her mom’s diagnosis, Hayes moved back home to help around the house. Most of her college experience has been from the perspective of a commuter student.

Hayes’ father was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer in October 2020, and he goes biweekly to chemotherapy treatments, she shared. His chemotherapy includes four separate drugs, and the treatment has been successful at slowing the spread of his cancer.

“You never know what other students are going through,” Hayes said. “You have no idea what’s going on in someone’s personal life. It’s so trivial to look at someone and think, ‘oh they’re young, they have everything, nothing is wrong, everything is fine.’”

Due to her father’s chemotherapy schedule, it will not be safe for him to attend Eden Hall’s graduation ceremony. This reality has been one of the most difficult parts of the commencement experience for Hayes.

“I want[ed] to see my dad see me walk across the stage because it’s so important,” Hayes said. “No one in my immediate family graduated or went to college … and my brother isn’t thinking about going.”

Despite these familial health issues and maintaining a part-time job while in school, Hayes has managed to graduate on time and get a job. This summer, she will work for Allegheny County as a park ranger and will be tasked with leading guided hikes, environmental education, school programs and nature camps. Her career goal is to be a park manager in the Allegheny National Forest.

“Right now, and I’m here at home and I’m OK with that,” Hayes said.  “I love home. I love being here with my parents. … I got plenty of life left to travel around and see things, but, right now, I am good here.”

No matter what personal challenges students have had to navigate, Dr. Templeton hopes the commencement options will be a bright spot for graduates in a challenging year.

“We do want them to have a [normal commencement] experience, if they want to,” she said. “I wish them all the best. I know they have worked so hard in such a trying time, and that they are more prepared than ever for the resilience they will need moving forward.”