In the midst of a pandemic, Shippensburg University is offering a consolation prize to a senior class which has given up many of its “lasts:” A commencement ceremony in its commuter parking lot.
In the days leading up to the original graduation date of May 9, SU seniors received impersonal video messages from administrators, emails marketing graduate school to new grads, and pleas for donations from the SU Foundation. One or two uncomfortable videos circulated of people dancing in “Ship Socks” — a donation perk for sending money back to the university. One email from the Alumni Association, sent May 8, beckons seniors to get involved as alumni. The next week, on May 14, seniors received an email informing them their SU email address will be deactivated after graduation.
As bittersweet and sometimes tone-deaf these emails are to graduating seniors every year, this year they stung in a very different kind of way.
The class of 2020, after all, would not bring their college careers full-circle and achieve closure on May 9. They would not walk away from Seth Grove Stadium graduates of Shippensburg University. In fact, on the originally planned commencement date, the class of 2020 received no recognition. No email, no phone call. Social media posts consisted of content reposted from graduates or other people.
The week before graduation, President Carter sent a video message to seniors congratulating them on making it to the last week, and urging them to persevere through finals week. After that, nothing.
“So this is it?” many of us were left asking.
Almost two months later, the university sent out an email and social media posts announcing its plans to celebrate the class of 2020. Graduates and their families would roll up in vehicles, exit the vehicle alone and then walk across a parking lot near the edge of the campus to receive their scroll. Then, they would pose for a photo taken by a professional photographer, which they would have to pay for and walk “off-stage,” or rather parking lot into an uncertain future.
It seemed that after some public feedback, the university decided a family member would be permitted to exit the vehicle and line up parallel to the graduate to also take a photo.
As students, we cannot expect a normal graduation ceremony; we cannot let our expectations go unaltered in the face of a pandemic that is ravaging our communities.
We need to understand and be patient with the fact that the university is putting out more fires than we could possibly know. But at the same time, SU has developed a reputation of underperforming at communication. The message students see is often tone-deaf and without sincerity; it is often too little, too late. It is a trend that will unweave the fabric of what makes SU great if it is not addressed internally.
We, The Slate 2020 Seniors, want to know what member or members of our estranged class recommended we celebrate a dignified milestone such as commencement in a dirty parking lot.
“We heard from our seniors” is not the same as “Two or three student leaders affirmed a half thought-out plan.”
Did the senior class vote or select those who suggested a “drive-thru” graduation? Those in Old Main need to consider that their hand-picked student advisers do not necessarily represent the entire student body; in this matter and all other matters.
There were many different options for the university to celebrate its hard-working seniors. Socially distancing chairs in Seth Grove Stadium and requiring masks would not be impossible, especially if the three colleges graduated at different times or on different days.
Live-streaming speeches from President Laurie Carter and other notables May 9 would have touched many. An email acknowledging that we completed our coursework and earned our degrees would have been great. Occasional email updates letting us know that we were not forgotten about and that plans are in motion would have gone a long way. It is rude to leave a Raider hanging.
The move into online and remote instruction in March was sudden. However, the administration knew graduation was coming. There was no surprise.
The absence of this communication was emotionally difficult, as was seeing solicitations for dumping more money into the institution for graduate school, or for foundation donations.
We understand the university is marketing its graduate programs and alumni network but officials need to “read the room.”
It is especially telling that in SU’s June 29 announcement that it would host a commencement ceremony around a month later, the university slid in at the end, “While browsing [for your cap and gown] check out the great alumni gear!”
College students are not made of money. Put the focus on the students and not the dollar signs.
The lack of communication, degree of marketing ploys and finally, the last-minute announcement of a consolation commencement projects the message that the university is done with its “old” students. It tells us that they want to rinse their hands of the last school year and focus on overcoming its looming financial hurdles for fall 2020. Take a look at all the happy stories posted on their social media about why Shippensburg is great. We are a footnote.
Four of the nine class of 2020 seniors graduating from The Slate are attending the ceremony. Some of us will take what we can get. One cannot attend because of health conditions that put the risk too high. A few live too far away to justify the trip. Others have already accepted the situation and have moved on.
The university has finished collecting our money, and we received our piece of paper in the mail. Is that all there is to it?
The Slate’s graduating seniors of the class of 2020