In-person graduation ceremonies allowed again; crisis scenario ready if needed

Photo: 123rf, DUB

“We’re switching to graduation on location immediately”, says department manager Martine Koppenhol from the Faculty of Medicine. At Veterinary Medicine, the second Bachelor graduation of the year, which had been postponed, can now be held in a church with a limited number of attendees. They are in fact the lucky ones amongst the graduates, as not much has been possible in the past two years due to the government's restrictions.

Online can be fun, too
The faculties of Humanities, Social Sciences, Science, and Law have had to organise several graduation ceremonies online. Even though the ceremony deviated from the usual, Jan Andries Post, senior lecturer at Biology, was still fairly positive about it. “An online ceremony is more fun than students just coming in to pick up their diplomas, especially for the international students who were already back home.” According to Post, face-to-face ceremonies turned out to be less fun than the online version “because graduates were only allowed to bring one guest each.” The teacher hopes the graduation ceremonies can take place in the University Hall again next academic year.

Fortunate accident
Veterinary Medicine has tried to make as many graduation ceremonies take place in person as possible. When the measures to contain the coronavirus still allowed for ceremonies to happen, Master’s students could bring one guest when picking up their diploma, and they received a personal speech. But more restrictions came soon after, leading the faculty to decide that students were still allowed to come in person, but friends and family had to attend the ceremony online. “The students were very disappointed about this decision”, recollects study advisor Trudi Miltenburg. “They had spent six years studying here. But they did understand it was the only thing we could offer.” Twice a year, the programme organises a Bachelor graduation ceremony. “The first ceremony was online. We postponed the second one, which will now take place in a church with a limited number of people.”

Online and in-person
At University College Utrecht, the graduation was held online rather than at TivoliVredenburg. Some elements of the regular ceremony, like the musical performances by students, had to be pre-recorded, but fortunately they managed to keep one face-to-face element: in the morning, students got to take a picture with the Dean. “That went very well. People kept their distance, it was fun, and the weather was nice,” remembers communications officer Linda van der Kroon. But that's not all. UCU also did something extra for its students apart from the online ceremony. “This year, we also created a professional graduation film, in which students threw their caps in the air, outdoors, at a safe distance from each other,” according to Van der Kroon. She says students’ response to the film was positive, so UCU is likely to do it again in future graduations.

Disappointed parents
Of course, not everyone was understanding of the need to carry out the graduation ceremonies online, such as some students and parents at the Faculty of Medicine. “Some parents e-mailed me to say they felt the online ceremony was disrespectful. But, well, a university medical centre isn’t going to ignore the rules”, says Martine Koppenhol, Head of Education. In previous years, graduation ceremonies were big to-dos, with the Master’s ceremony taking place in the University Hall and the Bachelor’s one in the Sint Pieter church. After Covid, only a handful of small ceremonies have been organised, with a maximum of thirty guests each, which meant barely any family members or friends could be present. Most graduation ceremonies were held online.

“When in November, the university decided that ceremonies could no longer happen on location, we talked to the student representatives of the programme, who showed us that the majority wasn't happy with the idea of an online graduation. We did one online ceremony for the students who preferred not to wait and postponed the face-to-face graduation to March 1.” Because the situation wasn’t much better in March, that graduation for Medicine students had to take place online after all. “They were so sad. This doesn’t apply to the students at Biomedical sciences and Clinical Health sciences, by the way: they didn’t mind the online ceremonies as much. In fact, they appreciated them". Now that the measures have been relaxed, the ceremonies can be held in person again. “We’re switching to in-person graduation immediately,” says Koppenhol.

Walk-through in the Botanical Gardens
If, this year, UU is once again faced with restrictions for graduation ceremonies because of Covid, the walk-through scenario is a back-up plan ready to go. It was developed at a central level in these past months. “By using the available space in the Botanical Gardens at the Utrecht Science Park, our goal was to design a diploma reception route,” says Nicolette Mijsberg of the Department of Communication & Marketing, who worked on the project.

The idea is to have a walking route through the gardens, where the student will be handed a drink and their diploma. That way, they can keep a safe distance from each other. The plan has never been realised, however, because the faculties plan their graduation ceremonies months in advance and the walk-through is a rather recent idea. “Besides, more and more options are becoming available now on location. People prefer to have their graduation ceremonies in the University Hall, which makes sense.” Still, the back-up scenario won’t be thrown out. “The faculties aren’t excluding the possibility of enacting such an alternative in the future. It depends on how the corona crisis develops,” says Mijsberg.