Credit: Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times/Polaris
Katherine Koeppel, a psychology major who graduated from USC in May 2020, adjusts her graduation cap before having her photograph taken by a friend on the campus. She had a zoom logo embroidered onto her sash, a reminder of how she attended class in 2020.

Commencement ceremonies at many of California’s colleges and universities will look a bit closer to normal this year, though with a few twists. 

In-person commencement ceremonies across the state were canceled last year because of Covid-19’s spread, and they were instead held virtually. This spring, some University of California and California State University campuses are still planning to keep commencements virtual, but others are hopeful they can celebrate with traditional in-person ceremonies or combine a form of the two. 

Improving Covid-19 infection rates encouraged California State University, Fresno, for example, to allow small in-person ceremonies scheduled for May 14 to 16.

“We listened to the feedback from our graduating seniors and student leaders and together are designing an in-person commencement celebration,” Fresno State President Saul Jimenez-Sandoval said in a statement. “This will be possible, provided that Fresno County remains in the red tier.” 

The campus will host six separate commencement ceremonies based on the size of the academic schools and colleges. Each ceremony would include approximately 1,400 graduates. Two ceremonies will be held each day — in the morning and evening. 

According to state guidelines, the red tier, as of April 1, allows counties to host outdoor venues with a maximum capacity of 20%. Each graduate will be allowed a maximum of four guests. The graduates will be seated on Fresno State’s football field, and their guests will be assigned to specific seating locations, or pods, in the stadium. Each of those pods will be socially distanced, and everyone will be required to wear face coverings. 

The graduates won’t get the traditional experience of walking across a stage. Instead, administrators will read their names over a loudspeaker, and their photographs will be displayed on the stadium screen. The ceremony will be livestreamed for people who cannot attend in person. 

At California State University, Northridge, officials weren’t sure if the decision to host an in-person commencement would be possible this year, even with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plans to reopen much of California. The campus ended up settling on a mix of online and in-person elements.

“We couldn’t dangle a ceremony at our students and then swipe it away,” said Christopher Aston, interim co-director of the Office of Student Involvement and Development on the Northridge campus. “We just needed a firm plan, and we knew that we could deliver on a virtual ceremony.”

The campus isn’t offering just a virtual ceremony. Cal State Northridge officials are also creating a “graduate parade” route through the university, with multiple stops that will offer special giveaways and photo opportunities. 

Different student groups are designing banners and decorations along the route, and some groups will hand out roses to each graduate, Aston said. 

“During the parade, (graduates) will be cheered on by socially distanced university employees and will receive a special grad box including a souvenir commencement program, pennant, license frame and tassel,” said William Watkins, Northridge’s vice president for Student Affairs and dean of students in a message to students. 

At UC Riverside, graduating students can sign up to walk across the stage one by one at one of two buildings on campus and, like in a normal year, have their names read and their photos taken. The differences are that no guests will be permitted inside the facilities, students will be distanced and masked and the ceremonies will happen across three different days to minimize the gatherings.

Students at UC Riverside will need to show proof of a Covid-19 vaccine to be allowed to participate, unless they have a medical or religious reason for not receiving the vaccine. 

“We continue to monitor infection data and will strictly adhere to all public health guidance to determine if any adjustments in approach are required,” UC Riverside Chancellor Kim Wilcox wrote in a message to students.

UC Berkeley is planning something similar. That campus will hold in-person processions at the university’s outdoor Greek Theatre over five days between May 16 and May 20, limited to students only. The ceremonies will be held from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day, with only 200 graduates permitted to walk across the stage per hour.

Graduating students will be able to schedule their walkthroughs at their convenience. Family and other guests won’t be allowed to attend, but the ceremonies will be livestreamed.

Other campuses are still planning to hold their commencement ceremonies completely virtually because of concerns about the possible spread of Covid-19, including San José State University, San Francisco State University, UC Merced and UC Santa Cruz.

In a message to students, UC Santa Cruz Chancellor Cindy Larive noted that “restrictions on in-person gatherings are unknown for June” and said the campus is “still investigating ways to make commencement special” for graduates. For now, though, the plan is for a virtual-only commencement. 

At the private University of Southern California in Los Angeles, in-person commencement ceremonies for the classes of 2020 and 2021 will be held at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum twice a day from May 14 to 25. 

Since last summer, USC has been developing multiple scenarios to prepare for this year’s commencement, said Adam Rosen, associate vice president of cultural relations and university events. 

Every USC graduate will be invited to one ceremony for their specific school or degree program, and they’ll have the opportunity to cross the stage, hear their names read, receive their diplomas and have their photos taken. Each graduate is only allowed two guests currently residing in California. The university is working with state officials to see if out-of-state residents can attend the ceremony. A virtual ceremony is scheduled for May 13. 

Some universities haven’t yet finalized their plans for commencements. UC Davis, UC San Diego and UC Santa Barbara, for example, have each said they are monitoring Covid-19 public health guidelines before deciding whether their ceremonies will include in-person elements.

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