Commencement./Courtesy of Emory Photo

When the University announced its transition to remote learning for the remainder of the semester, the Class of 2020’s final months on campus dissipated. In one email, University President Claire E. Sterk wrote to outgoing seniors that “traditional May commencement activities” would be canceled due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

“I think we’re the class of blue fences and the coronavirus,” David Kulp (20C) said, referring to the wall of blue fences surrounding the Emory Student Center during its two-year construction. “This is what characterizes our class.”

But soon after, Executive Director of Advancement and Alumni Engagement Events Michael Kloss created the Commencement Committee Task Force comprising “students, faculty, alumni and university leadership” — a sign that not all Commencement-related hope has been entirely lost.

Student task force member Jasmine Walker (20C) said the task force is currently planning digital activities or events that could take place on May 11 — the original date for Commencement. In addition, they are also conceptualizing a future, traditional commencement day.

“We want to emphasize that [the May 11 celebration] is not going to replace, at least for the undergraduate college, anything that may happen in person,” Walker said.

College Dean Michael Elliott promised an in-person celebration “to send [seniors] off” in a YouTube video posted on March 20. “We are committed to doing something for you, in person, on this campus, at a future date,” Elliott said in the video.

An April 2 University statement emailed to the Wheel by Vice President of Academic Communications and Reputation Leadership Nancy Seideman revealed that the task force will “help design commencement experiences in lieu of traditional commencement activities.”

“We sort of suggested-slash-asked that students be involved,” College Council President Jacob Hicks (18Ox, 20C) said. “Then, myself and several other students were invited to be a part of this informal ‘student working group.’”

While including student government leaders like Hicks, Student Government Association President Ben Palmer (18Ox, 20C) and Residence Hall Association President Aaron Jordan (20C), the task force also represents first-generation, low-income students such as Mahaa Mahmood (18Ox, 20C). Other student members include President of the Association of Caribbean Educators and Students Zariah Embry (20C), doctoral student Jennifer O’Neil (20A) and philosophy doctoral candidate Kyle Tanaka (24G).

The task force met virtually on March 24 and March 26 — brainstorming ideas and planning commencement-related celebrations. The members are split into different sessions based on availability, according to Hicks.

According to Mahmood, the University has also partnered with a “creative think tank” called Ideas United.

“They’re basically supposed to help us brainstorm a lot more creatively,” Mahmood said. “They’ve just been posing questions and letting us keep, keep going.”

On March 12, Mahmood circulated a petition on Facebook urging Emory to host an in-person commencement ceremony, even if delayed. As of April 3, the petition had 1,576 signatures.

“As of now, the petition has completed its purpose,” Mahmood said. “We’re going to have an in-person commencement.”

In February, Emory announced that human rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson would deliver the keynote address at the 2020 Commencement ceremony. The task force is discussing whether he will still make his address online on May 11.

“We’ve been talking about what we’re going to do with Bryan Stevenson,” Mahmood said. “Whether or not he’s still going to be there in person … or if he’s going to do something online. If he did it online, what would we want him to do?”

Hicks, speaking on behalf of the other student members, said that their role was primarily to “give the school as much feedback as possible.”

“Seems like part of my job is just to complain,” Palmer said. “I’m supposed to hold [the University] accountable to what I’m hearing and what I think is the right direction. So we have.”

To represent graduating students in commencement planning, task force members Palmer, Kulp, Hicks, Jordan and Walker agreed to create a public survey. The survey, a Google form, was shared throughout various social media platforms. It contains questions about senior students’ willingness to have a combined “mega-graduation” ceremony with the Class of 2021 or to return to Emory on a later date if given financial support.

“I think that the survey provided some data to back up what we were saying,” said Walker, who was credited as having conceptualized the survey. “Having a survey, I thought, would reach more of the student body.”

Since the survey did not request student names or IDs, task force members cannot validate if the responses are from graduating seniors or even Emory students. The task force, however, does not view this as a concern.

“We imagine that the majority of people who are going to be interested in filling out a survey about commencement are going to be seniors,” Kulp said.

A preliminary analysis of survey responses from Hicks and his team shows that 85% of the 771 respondents were more likely to return to campus for a commencement celebration if the University provided financial support.

Palmer and Hicks stated that, even as student leaders, they were not made aware of the University’s decision to cancel Commencement prior to the email.

“There was a lot of issue taken with how it was initially communicated,” Palmer said. “There was no direct language.”

Mahmood echoed these sentiments when referring to Emory’s “hasty” decisions. Many students have censured the University for its miscommunication regarding the Student Support Stipend.

“My concern with the way that Emory has been handling COVID entirely has been that they’ve been making a lot of decisions and then dealing with the aftermath as opposed to being prepared and having a plan,” Mahmood said.

Students have still lauded the school for its decision to cancel commencement-related events in the face of a worsening global health crisis.

“Personally, Emory made the right decision for the sake of public health,” Kulp said.

Although he agreed with the University’s decision, Kulp expressed grief over being stripped of an event that culminates his collegiate experience.

“I was really looking forward to commencement,” Kulp said. “It’s a holy and spiritual and meaningful and familial experience. The months that we were going to have to solidify relationships and be with our friends … [were] taken away from us in one email, overnight, very, very quickly.”

Palmer believes that the administration should “reflect the pain that seniors feel.”

“I thought I had two months to say goodbye to a lot of people and places that really made me who I am,” Palmer said. “And over the course of a few hours, I was given a few days.”

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Managing Editor | Ayushi Agarwal (21C) is from Mumbai, India, majoring in psychology and minoring in sociology. Agarwal previously served as the Wheel’s photo editor and as an assistant copy editor. She recently interned at The Wire, an independent Indian news website.