Each spring, Ohio State students pack into Ohio Stadium to march across the field and receive their diplomas before linking arms to sing “Carmen Ohio.”
For years, this has been the tradition celebrating graduation at Ohio State, but due to COVID-19, the 2020 spring commencement will be observed differently.
After announcing March 17 that commencement would be postponed, Ohio State announced in a video Friday that its spring commencement ceremony will be held virtually May 3, with Apple CEO Tim Cook serving as the commencement speaker, and an in-person celebration will be held at a later date, University President Michael V. Drake said. The announcement was met with mixed reviews from the class of 2020.
“I was so confused at first,” Kerestina Khalil, a fourth-year in biology, said. “At first I didn’t really know how to react, and then I just honestly broke down into tears because that’s something that I looked forward to for so long.”
For Khalil and her family, attending college was always a dream, and the commencement ceremony was a way for them to celebrate the hours of work and struggles she overcame as a first-generation college student and immigrant from Egypt.
Khalil said the language barrier prevented her mom from helping her apply to colleges, and when she got to Ohio State, she felt completely lost.
“Once I got to college, I felt like everyone around me knew what they were doing except for me. I remember messing up on a simple lab report because I thought it was like a paper lab report because I had no idea what [CarmenCanvas] was,” Khalil said. “I didn’t know what college was like. I never had anyone in my family talk about going to college. That was just something that was so novel to our family.”
Khalil said commencement represented her overcoming those obstacles, and a virtual commencement will not be the same.
“It means everything to me, that us first-gen students are able to overcome this and we are able to get the degrees that our families have always dreamt of having or dreamt of us having,” Khalil said. “It’s just like a really beautiful moment to be able to show that degree to your family and say, ‘You know, it was all worth it.’”
Khalil said she would have rather found out about the news through an email instead of an Instagram post on Ohio State’s account, where it did not include that an in-person celebration would occur later.
“I thought that was a huge slap in the face for the class of 2020 because I was literally scrolling down Instagram and I saw that it was a historic online commencement and I was just in shock,” Khalil said. “I refreshed my email, like, 20 times trying to see maybe if it just messed up. I saw the post earlier in the day and then maybe at midnight I saw they sent the email out.”
University spokesperson Ben Johnson said on Monday’s episode of the Lantern Lites podcast that a video announcement was made on the university website and on a number of different platforms, followed by an email later on Friday.
The university decided to use a video announcement because it is the closest thing to an in-person announcement, and it is important to Drake that the class of 2020 have their achievements honored as scheduled, Johnson said.
“The way communication works now is as soon as you tell a significant group of people of really any size, it’s on social media. So, a lot of people see things first on social media, so a part of that is inevitable,” Johnson said.
The university is trying to manage the volume of emails students and staff receive so people are not overwhelmed but still receive the necessary information, Johnson said. One of the university’s tactics in managing this is sending out late Friday emails that recap all of the news of the week, and the most recent Friday email opened with information on virtual commencement.
“That was one of the channels that we had planned to disseminate that information. It just wasn’t the first place we disseminated it because, again, we wanted to do it through the video message,” Johnson said.
Jake Footer, a fourth-year in business, shared similar sentiments to Khalil’s.
“I actually found out through one of my friend’s Snapchat stories and I didn’t believe it at first because there was no prior contact from the school,” Footer said. “And then I saw the tweet and I thought, ‘Wow, OK, that’s surprising we didn’t get any prior notice at all.’”
Footer said he is not angry at the university for making the spring commencement virtual, but he is upset with the manner the news was revealed, as well as the word choice of the tweet that accompanied it.
“It looks like they don’t really care for the class, the graduating seniors. They say, ‘It’s a historical event.’ It’s a historically bad event,” Footer said.
The tweet reads, “Though we will not be able to link arms in Ohio Stadium, the Class of 2020 deserves to be celebrated. @OSUPrezDrake has announced a historic virtual commencement May 3 with Apple CEO Tim Cook delivering the commencement address. #InThisTogetherOhio.”
On Saturday, the university tweeted that graduates will be able to walk across the stage in front of friends and family at a later date when it is safe and practical to do so.
“The news on Friday afternoon was that we were going to be able to do something for graduates on May 3, the traditional previously scheduled graduation date. We were going to be able to maintain that date and do something for students on that date. That was the important news,” Johnson said. “There’s less news about whatever will happen in person at a later date because we’re not in a position to even say what that date might be.”
Despite their initial reactions to the announcement, Footer and Khalil are glad there will be an in-person celebration at a later time.
“Everyone wants to throw their cap in the air and sing ‘Carmen Ohio’ with everyone the last time and be in the ’Shoe and hold that tradition and just have that memory for the rest of their life. Even something that comes similar to that, if we can do that at a later date, that would be some silver lining,” Footer said.