William & Mary will mark the end of the 2020-21 academic year with a celebration unlike any in its 328-year history.
The university will honor the achievements of the Class of 2021 with a combination of virtual and in-person celebrations throughout Commencement Weekend, May 21-23 — the highlight of which will be six in-person ceremonies to ensure every graduating student is able to celebrate with their loved ones, while still following public health measures necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
William & Mary celebrated the Class of 2020 virtually last May — and has invited the graduates back as alumni to gather for a full, in-person Commencement experience over Homecoming & Reunion Weekend, October 7-10, 2021, to take part in cherished William & Mary graduation traditions in person.
“Students have worked so hard for this moment,” said Ginger Ambler, vice president for Student Affairs and chair of W&M’s Commencement Committee. “We want them to be able to share it with the people who mean the most to them, the people who have gotten them to this point, their friends, their family, their faculty. To be able to do this in person is so meaningful, particularly after a year in which we haven't been able to gather the way we're used to as a community.”
Last month, William & Mary received updated guidance from the Virginia Department of Health that informed the university’s decision-making regarding in-person events; specifically the guidance made it possible for a limited number of family members and guests to attend a graduation ceremony on campus.
The university will host six in-person ceremonies (four for undergraduates and two for graduate students) at Zable Stadium over three days to ensure that every graduate who wishes can have their name read as they cross the stage.
“Before we had that new guidance from the state, we had a totally different plan,” said Greg Henderson, W&M’s chief of staff for Student Affairs and vice chair of the Commencement Committee. “We were thinking we wouldn’t be able to have anybody in the stadium, but then we suddenly got this guidance and immediately shifted course to think through how we could celebrate in person.”
The change to in-person ceremonies in March was welcome news to the Committee, but brought with it many logistical challenges to ensure the safety of students, their families, their friends and the entire William & Mary community before, during and after each of the ceremonies, explained Steve Tewksbury, executive director of University Events.
“Consultations happened very quickly with many of the unsung heroes from custodial services, grounds, the trades, moving and storage, and work control. We also worked very closely with Parking Services, W&M Police, Environmental Health & Safety and Athletics to coordinate safe guidelines for those coming to campus to celebrate,” Tewksbury said. “Many of the Commencement volunteers have spent countless hours supporting Healthy Together initiatives, campus testing and case management. I can confidently say that the entire William & Mary community cannot wait to properly and successfully honor the 2021 graduates and their families!”
The Commencement Committee, which includes faculty, staff and student representatives from the classes of 2020 and 2021, met regularly for the past year with the goal of in-person celebrations for both classes, explained Ambler.
“The fact that the committee has continued to plan for this really speaks to the commitment, a campus-wide commitment, to making the best decisions we can to celebrate our graduates,” she said. “I knew from the start of the pandemic that we would do everything we possibly could as a community to keep each other safe, but there was still so much uncertainty. Being able to have an in-person Commencement after the year we’ve had is truly a testament to the commitment we have all made to care for one another.”
Approximately 400 students will attend each ceremony at Zable Stadium, rain or shine, with each graduating student permitted up to four guests. Each student will have their name read while crossing the stage and receive a placeholder diploma. Ceremonies will be divided by major and school, with multiple majors and schools sharing the same ceremony. The full schedule of events is available online. There will continue to be a virtual option for those who cannot be on campus in person. All plans remain contingent on the latest data regarding COVID-19 and the evolving health and safety guidance William & Mary receives from the commonwealth.
In the case of thunder or lightning, students will graduate in Kaplan Arena, but families will need to watch virtually due to mandated indoor occupancy restrictions. If there is only rain, then the plan will continue as scheduled in Zable Stadium. A traditional Walk Across Campus will precede each of the ceremonies, with degree candidates processing from the Wren Building to Zable Stadium for their graduation.
“There are actually six different scripts, one for each ceremony with each one tailored for the students who will be at that ceremony,” Henderson explained. “It’s fascinating the level of thought that was put into these ceremonies. We have six different singers for the national anthem, sung by a student from each ceremony. We have three different student speakers, one for the graduate students, one for the business school and the undergraduate student speaker is going to deliver her commencement address, with a few minor changes, at all four undergraduate ceremonies, so that each undergrad gets sent off with the same message.”
This year’s undergrad speaker, Divya Dureja ’21, is graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in religious studies and a minor in biochemistry. Dureja has spent her time at William & Mary engaging in community service through her involvement as director of Camp Kesem William & Mary. A recipient of the Freeman Fellowship in Malaysia and an intern for a religious studies research project in Indonesia, Dureja has chased opportunities to expand her worldview and has maintained a fervent curiosity about new social justice issues.
“I am honored to have this opportunity to reflect on the hardships of the past year and the ways in which William & Mary students have united to overcome these challenges,” she said.
The festivities have already begun, as graduating students participated in the beloved tradition of ringing the Wren Bell over the course of three days to mark the end of classes. Starting May 20, certain affinity groups will hold virtual celebrations to recognize graduating students. Many academic departments will offer virtual opportunities for celebration during the afternoon of May 21.
“We’re doing everything we can to preserve the most meaningful traditions and that includes the Candlelight Ceremony,” Henderson said. “It will be different, but we’re still going to hold place for this nostalgic and touching moment that I think is going to be deeply meaningful for students this year.”
This year's Candlelight Ceremony will take place Friday evening in Zable Stadium, which will be open only to graduating students. Guests will be able to view via livestream. The senior class has selected one student, one staff member, one administrator and a member of the faculty to give brief remarks to the graduating class. The ceremony provides an opportunity for the senior class to celebrate and reflect on their time at the university.
“When I think about Commencement this year, the word that comes to my mind is resilience,” said Ambler. “Our dedication and focus has remained steadfast. There is so much meaning in the fact that, as a community, we are celebrating the end of this year together and in person.”