Hawkeyes to celebrate graduation with unprecedented virtual commencement

Although COVID-19 altered the final semester for graduating Hawkeyes, the University of Iowa is finding ways to celebrate their accomplishments virtually.


Ben Smith

A Herky statue with a “PHIL Was Here” sash stands on the Pentacrest on Monday, April 24. Beginning in 2012, the UI launched PHIL Was Here to celebrate philanthropy at the university.


Around 5,400 University of Iowa graduates won’t walk across a stage to be handed a diploma in front of hundreds of graduates’ friends and family members this weekend. Instead, more than 3,100 Hawkeyes will tune in online to watch unprecedented virtual commencement ceremonies.


After the UI on March 18 moved commencement ceremonies online to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, each college organized their own virtual ceremonies to celebrate their graduating Hawkeyes, like traditional commencement. Along with the streamed ceremonies, Hawkeyes also have the option to return for in-Each ceremony will stream at the same time it was scheduled for when the UI planned for spring 2020 graduation to be in-person, said Sara Sullivan, associate registrar at the UI. The ceremonies will be streamed via YouTube Premiere, a platform where multiple viewers can watch the same video together.

RELATED: University of Iowa seniors may participate in fall 2020 or spring 2021 commencement ceremonies

“Students who opted in to participate in the virtual ceremony will have their names and credentials displayed,” Sullivan said. “Some students will also have a photo if they chose to supply one or their college supplied one for them.”

person recognition in the future.

The ceremonies will include recorded video messages from 17 faculty, alumni, and administrators, including one from UI President Bruce Harreld, as well as social-media messages from parents, UI media-relations Director Anne Bassett said. The Office of Strategic Communication also worked with collegiate partners to solicit college-specific student, faculty, and alumni speakers, she said.

Many areas of campus collaborated to bring students a spring commencement that provides a much-needed end-of-semester celebration, while also protecting the health and safety of the Hawkeye community, Bassett added.

Communication with students and between campus departments was completely digital, Sullivan said of commencement-planning efforts. The university sent emails to students updating them on the situation and used different platforms such as its commencement website, the graduation app, social-media outlets, and various strategic-communication partners.

“UI leadership made the difficult decision to go virtual,” Sullivan said. “Safety of our campus community was at the forefront of the decision and subsequent planning.”

Former Undergraduate Student Government President Noel Mills said she was part of the advocacy effort for a virtual ceremony. She encouraged students to participate in online commencement in addition to the fall 2020 or spring 2021 on-campus ceremonies.

“My biggest concern about having a virtual ceremony was the same as most folks in that, it’s not a real thing, but the cancellation of a physical 2020 graduation ceremony had to be done,” Mills said.

Former Graduate and Professional Student Government President Dexter Golinghorst said graduate and professional graduations function similarly to undergraduate ceremonies — divided by college with a message from the president, provost, and dean, and a service reading off students’ names with their picture.

Golinghorst said early in the planning process, the student governments surveyed students asking for suggestions on what they think the university should do about the 2020 ceremonies. Students favored the option to have in-person commencement as well, he said.

“People really wanted to have that final moment of walking across the stage and getting their diploma,” Golinghorst said. “The UI has offered that opportunity as well as virtual and having the option to come back is really important.”

Bassett said all viewers of any college or program graduation are encouraged to use #UIowaGrad20 to participate in the celebration live.

“The university was extremely disappointed to cancel spring commencement,” Bassett said. “However, everyone is looking forward to celebrating the wonderful achievements of every graduate in the best way possible under the circumstances.”