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Online Graduation at Princeton University

Four months ago, graduation seemed so far away. I still had time to enjoy “college life,” as one puts it: friends, parties, and, of course, academics. But graduation came early for the class of 2020: in mid-March, most of us were required to leave our campuses due to the COVID-19 pandemic. All of the things that I loved so much about Princeton ended. Live classes turned into Zoom classes; getting lunch with friends turned into eating food at the same time over FaceTime. Sure, many things could be replaced -- but other things couldn’t. Like graduation. 

Our traditional multi-day graduation celebration became a forty-minute streaming graduation video. It had a few nice speeches and a Latin incantation from our Commencement Day speaker, University president, valedictorian, salutatorian, and more. The head of our arts center -- who was the U.S. poet laureate for several years -- read a poem, too. There were many short, albeit noteworthy, parts to the forty-minute celebration. But it still felt fake: I still felt as if I hadn’t really graduated, and as if these Internet parties weren’t real festivities at all.

But even though I was disappointed, I didn’t feel like I had been forgotten. So many student organizations had tried to make graduation feel festive -- and, more importantly, make seniors feel as if they were important. The Center for Jewish Life (CJL), for example, had several senior events -- a senior roast, a senior toast (yes, both!), and senior gift. They even assigned me a thesis fairy who sent me small presents when I was writing my thesis! My a cappella group had weekly hangouts with senior-led discussions on Zoom. My department had an online commencement, and even sent each graduating senior a gift basket of chocolates, a separate gift of potted flowers, and a bunch of books to enjoy. And on top of all that, my family planned a FANTASTIC graduation surprise, complete with a song they wrote for me, a video message from my favorite actor, and a Zoom party with my family from across the country. In a way, I enjoyed this so much more than I would have enjoyed my in-person graduation: this way, I got to celebrate with the family that couldn't have made it to Princeton!

At the end of the day, nothing will make up for the graduation that my class has missed. We’re supposed to have one next year, but the reality is that many of my classmates won’t be able to make it, and that it won’t really feel the same. But everyone really has tried to make our graduation special during this epidemic. No, an online forty-minute commencement doesn’t feel like the real thing… and nothing really does. But the outpouring of support and effort from others, from all parts of campus, does make me (and, I’m sure, others) feel valued and supported when we needed it most.



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