Humphries was not in the District for her graduation ceremony but in her parents’ living room in Orlando. Red, blue, and gray balloons bobbed in the room. A Howard alumni flag waved outside. And like the rest of Howard’s class of 2020, on Saturday Humphries tuned in for a virtual ceremony for the conferring of degrees.
The online-only event came in response to the global pandemic, which has, besides shuttering businesses and closing schools, forced university administrators to rethink graduation.
“I was hoping literally a miracle was going to happen and I would be able to get back,” said Humphries, who has not been able to return to the Washington campus of the historically black university since coming home for spring break in March. “I really do long for that feeling of experiencing this with the people I’ve done the all-nighters with and collaborated with on projects.”
The situation was not lost on Howard President Wayne A. I. Frederick.
“This may be the first time in the 153-year history of Howard University that we have not been able to gather in person for this momentous occasion,” Frederick said during Saturday’s virtual ceremony. “It is not lost on me or any of you that there is no substitute for savoring this moment together. Nothing can re-create the long walk on the yard.”
Frederick also invited the class of 2020 to return next May for festivities on campus.
Howard isn’t alone in experimenting with virtual graduation events. On Saturday, American University and the University of the District of Columbia also hosted online events honoring 2020 graduates.
Leaders at George Washington University have also moved to replace an in-person ceremony with a virtual one, but this year’s graduates have been invited to join the Class of 2021 in a ceremony on the National Mall next spring.
Georgetown University graduates will convene virtually May 16, and Trinity Washington University plans to hold 12 interactive Zoom sessions for graduates between Wednesday and Friday.
Ahead of a May 16 virtual ceremony, officials at Catholic University said they will mail each graduate their degree and a printed program containing every name in the Class of 2020. Then, if health officials deem it safe, graduates will gather in person in August.
The University of Maryland’s flagship campus in College Park revealed a three-part plan to celebrate the graduating class that includes a virtual ceremony on May 22, complementary Maryland football tickets and an invitation to participate in the winter commencement in December.
George Mason University postponed its in-person ceremony indefinitely, officials said in a message to the campus. But a virtual ceremony has been scheduled for May 22. The University of Virginia will confer more than 7,000 degrees via live stream on May 16. An in-person celebration is planned for October, but university leaders are eyeing backup dates in May 2021.
In a rare move, midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis will commission in-person, officials said in a statement. The ceremonies will be small to comply with social distancing protocols and staggered over the course of 10 days. A virtual graduation ceremony will also be held May 22.
Former president Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama have announced plans for multiple virtual commencement speeches. On May 16, they will be a part of “Graduate Together: America Honors the Class of 2020,” an hour-long special for high school graduates that will feature celebrities, and host a virtual graduation event for seniors of historically black colleges and universities.
According to Howard, Humphries’s broadcasting degree was one of 1,358 awarded at Saturday’s ceremony, including 153 master’s degrees and 86 doctorate degrees. Nineteen percent of the class were first-generation college students.
In his remarks to the class, Frederick noted that for the class of 2020, the pandemic is far from the first hurdle thrown in their paths.
“Born after the attacks of September 11, you have lived long enough to see the effects of a Great Recession, the trauma of gun violence, over-policing, and the ever-advancing consequences of climate change,” he said. “For many of you, there was no silver spoon. Yet you pressed forward.”
That determination would be the key for the class’s success, Frederick added.
“I have no doubt that you will rise to the challenge,” he said. “We have been living a reality that much of the nation is only now just awakening to grasp. While many touted the sustained economic prosperity of the last decade, the underemployment and unemployment in our communities has been almost double the national average. The underlining health disparities and the social determinants of health, long pronounced in our community, are being brutally revealed to the rest of the nation at this moment.”