‘It feels surreal’: Hawkeyes celebrate virtually as they graduate amid unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic

Thousands of UI students graduated this weekend, and celebrated by tuning into the University of Iowa’s first-ever virtual commencement ceremonies.

University+of+Iowa+President+Bruce+Harreld+speaks+during+virtual+commencement+on+Saturday%2C+May+16%2C+2020.+Due+to+concerns+surrounding+the+COVID-19%2C+the+University+of+Iowa+moved+commencement+online+in+March.+

Ryan Adams

University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld speaks during virtual commencement on Saturday, May 16, 2020. Due to concerns surrounding the COVID-19, the University of Iowa moved commencement online in March.

Rin Swann, News Reporter


First-generation student and graduating senior Hunter Aldred sat beside his roommate wearing a cap and gown. Instead of a backdrop of Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Aldred sat on his well-worn white couch in his Iowa City apartment. In one hand, he held his phone and watched his virtual commencement ceremony. In the other, he balanced his laptop, where his family in Illinois could be seen on-screen celebrating the completion of his undergraduate education.

Meanwhile, graduating senior Paige Schlichte was surprised by the arrival of her mother and sister in Iowa City — when she had been prepared to celebrate without family in-person. As other members of her family tuned in virtually, the commencement announcer called Schlichte’s name.

“It feels surreal that I’ve actually graduated,” said Schlichte, who studied journalism and psychology.

Editor’s note: Schlichte is a former DI staffer.

Aldred and Schlichte were two of more than 3,100 undergraduate, graduate, and professional University of Iowa students that opted in for virtual commencement ceremonies this spring.

The UI announced its decision to host a virtual commencement in March, following the cancellation of an in-person ceremony due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

RELATED: UI classes will move online for rest of the semester, spring commencement canceled

Students will have a chance to walk at an in-person ceremony in either winter 2020 or spring 2021, but a virtual commencement was held this semester to acknowledge graduating students now.

Although Aldred, who graduated with a B.S. in human physiology, was skeptical about a virtual ceremony achieving the same personal moments an in-person one might, he said he was pleasantly surprised.

“For some reason, I didn’t think it would be as meaningful as it was,” Aldred said. “But being able to see my friends who I didn’t know would be in the same ceremony as me — the people who lived with me in my freshman year — it was nice seeing their faces come up… It brought back a lot of memories.”

The 1 p.m. CLAS commencement Aldred watched began with a musical overlay of “Pomp and Circumstance” and featured sweeping aerial shots of key locations on campus, including the Pentacrest, Kinnick Stadium, and the Iowa River.

UI President Bruce Harreld opened the ceremony by offering his congratulations to the graduating Hawkeyes and acknowledged the unusual circumstances surrounding the celebration.

“We are recognizing your college graduation this year in a very unique way,” Harreld said. “But our pride in your accomplishments remains as strong and bright as any Iowa commencement. As always, we stand together as Hawkeyes today with strength, purpose, and pride.”

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

Similar to an in-person ceremony, the virtual commencement was divided up into different ceremonies according to the colleges at various times throughout the day.

The majority of senior Hawkeyes graduated Saturday, including the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences which accounts for 60 percent of enrolled students, but ceremonies for other colleges began as early as Thursday for the College of Pharmacy and will go until June, with the College of Dentistry’s set to take place June 5.

Most of the ceremonies leading up to this weekend opened with a standard message from Harreld, Provost Montserrat Fuentes, and state Board of Regents President Michael Richards.

Fuentes expressed her regret that an in-person ceremony could not be held and stated that the graduating class deserved an in-person ceremony surrounded by loved ones.

“I am personally deeply disappointed that I will not be able to shake your hand as you walk across the stage and congratulate you in person,” Fuentes said. “But even if I can only do so virtually, it is no less of a privilege and a joy for me to celebrate the dedicated endeavor, accomplishments, and unique qualities of the very fine members of our graduating class of spring 2020.”

Other addresses to the audience in each commencement ceremony involved speeches from the deans of individual colleges, a selected faculty speaker, and at least one student speaker.

Students’ names were called and appeared on the screen along with their degree(s) and any honors they had received. Many student features also included a picture.

“It was definitely shorter than an in-person ceremony would have been which honestly, I think is a good thing,” Schlichte said. “It was really cool. They had all the speeches and then they had each person individually with their name read out so overall I think it was cool because you still got your few seconds to be recognized.”

The video concluded with messages from family and loved ones offering encouragement and words of endearment, which Aldred said was his favorite part of the ceremony and made it feel more heartfelt.

As a first-generation student, Aldred said that he often felt like he had to navigate his own journey to arrive at Iowa, and he wouldn’t change his decision. Even in these unprecedented times when an in-person ceremony would have been ideal, Aldred said, there was nothing he would change about the virtual ceremony.

“Over the past four years I’ve been here, I’ve watched Iowa grow as much as I have grown,” Aldred said. “I think the people working behind the scenes at Iowa are genuinely trying their best. So it’s always nice to see that they care about us.”

Facebook Comments