Robot ceremonies. Virtual dance parties. Online speeches. How Arizona colleges and universities are celebrating graduates – AZCentral - Freelance Rack

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Saturday, May 9, 2020

Robot ceremonies. Virtual dance parties. Online speeches. How Arizona colleges and universities are celebrating graduates – AZCentral

In a normal year, Melissa Werner would be prepping an arena, managing logistics, making sure security was in place and producing an in-person event for thousands of graduates and their families.

Werner, who has produced commencement ceremonies at Arizona State University for more than 20 years, would watch as students and their families benefited from her team’s hard work, as they celebrated with their friends and snapped selfies.

Now, she’s putting the final touches on virtual commencement ceremonies for a radically different kind of graduation since COVID-19 has made large in-person events unsafe.

“We know this is not a replacement for an in-person ceremony,” Werner, the executive director of ASU’s office of university ceremonies, said. “This is a way for us to celebrate right now.”

She has a front-row seat, professionally and personally, to how the pandemic is disrupting this education milestone: Werner’s daughter is a high school senior who will graduate this year as well.

Like many parents, and, she hopes, ASU graduates, she will have a small celebration at home for her child.

“I have a feeling she’ll probably roll her eyes and scoff at it, but we want her to know it’s a big deal,” Werner said.

She wants to see all the photos ASU graduates share of these mini-ceremonies, too. Part of the virtual event planning involved creating more ways to facilitate that sharing, like downloadable photo backgrounds of iconic campus locations like Old Main and Palm Walk.

About 7,000 graduates sent in photos and messages that will be displayed during the ceremony when their names are called. Each student who is graduating will have their name read and a slide shown.

Arizona colleges and universities have dramatically altered graduation ceremonies to adapt to COVID-19.

At ASU’s Thunderbird School of Global Management, graduation will include robots. Other ceremonies feature special video messages, photos and quotations from students, and even a virtual dance party hosted by the business school.

At Northern Arizona University, prerecorded messages from university leaders were posted online starting on Friday to kick off graduation celbrations. At the University of Arizona, commencement will be streamed online on May 15. ASU’s prerecorded ceremonies will be published online starting Monday. 

Grand Canyon University students posted photos of their celebrations online and saw prerecorded messages from campus leaders.

In mid-March, after it was announced that spring commencement ceremonies wouldn’t be held in-person, a group of GCU students walked together down Lopes Way on campus to hold their own mini-celebration. 

One GCU graduate showed off her cap and gown in an Instagram photo with this season’s hottest commodity: toilet paper. 

“No toilet paper was harmed in the making of these pictures!” she wrote.

Schools asked graduates to share photos of their celebrations and include special hashtags. They asked students to send in photos that could be featured in commencement ceremonies and online slideshows.

They’re also holding out hope for future in-person gatherings, with most schools allowing May graduates to walk in December ceremonies or planning special reunions at a later date, when the threat of spreading the virus lessens. 

Robot graduation ceremony

Of the 143 Thunderbird graduates, 140 participated in the robot ceremony using what are called “telepresence robots,” also known as “avatar robots,” said Thunderbird Dean Sanjeev Khagram.

Instead of a person walking up to get their diploma, the robots, with photos or videos of the students they were standing in for, did the walk in their place. Some students submitted professional headshots to use on the robots’ screens, while others wore caps and gowns or used their video webcams to participate, he said. 

The school had six robots, so Khagram spent two days recording the robot walks. 

Video of the walks, along with other prerecorded elements that would take place in a normal ceremony, will be available on the school’s YouTube page on Monday. 

“I was delighted to offer this innovation as an option after the staff figured out a way to make it work,” Khagram said. “Students chose to take part on short notice and made this project their own with their high participation, unique avatar decisions and active engagement.

Graduating classes set records in AZ

Aside from the global pandemic, Arizona schools called their graduating classes “record-setting.” 

NAU, ASU and GCU all said they were graduating their largest classes ever this spring.

At NAU, about 6,000 students applied to graduate this semester, more than 5,000 of whom are undergraduates, a press release from the university said.

Of those, the college’s nursing school counts 317 graduates entering the field in the midst of the global pandemic. 

“I am so proud of the Class of 2020,” NAU President Rita Cheng said in a statement. “This class has achieved their aspirations and earned their degrees after years of dedication, hard work and — toward the very end — an unexpected time of global turmoil. It makes this achievement all the more remarkable.”

GCU’s record-breaking class included more than 26,000 degrees conferred for both traditional students and working adults, the university said in a press release.

“Dealing with the challenges of this COVID-19 pandemic is not how our graduating seniors on campus nor our working adult students online envisioned their college careers finishing up,” GCU President Brian Mueller said in a statement.

“But they met those challenges with true Lopes spirit and persevered. This has truly been a historic year and they should feel extremely proud of their accomplishments.”

ASU’s class is expected to be its largest ever as well, with more than 16,400 graduates.

This year also includes the first group of students graduating from the school’s partnership with Uber. Five of these “Uber scholars” will be graduating this semester. 

Randy Clarke, 25, is one of them. He’s a driver-partner for Uber whose work was radically changed in March when people stopped leaving their homes much — especially when “they started closing the bars in Scottsdale.”

“Once Arizona got into action fighting COVID, I was out of pretty much out of work,” he said.

He believes he got COVID-19 himself a few weeks ago and experienced symptoms including the loss of taste and smell, but wasn’t able to get tested at the time because his symptoms weren’t severe.

Still, he managed to finish his degree in political science and communications this semester after several stops and starts over the past seven years. Having the scholarship through Uber helped him finish his degree, which had been put on pause because of money in the past. 

He planned to celebrate his degree at in-person ceremonies along with his family from New Jersey. He would have taken a ton of photos to show his 1-year-old son. 

He’ll instead be watching online on Monday. He sent in a photo of himself and a note of thanks to his family and Uber for their support. 

“At first I was bummed, but now it’s like our new abnormal, and there’s really nothing I could do about it,” Clarke said. “So I’ve learned to accept it, and I’ve crossed the finish line. And I guess it’s just time for me to start moving forward to, ‘How am I going to contribute to society once I’m done with school?'”

He plans to continue working with Uber and start his own production company.

Reach reporter Rachel Leingang by email at rachel.leingang@gannett.com or by phone at 602-444-8157, or find her on Twitter and Facebook.

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