Students respond to one-year graduation postponement

Some seniors won’t be able to come back to Lexington in a year to walk across the stage. Others are counting on it.


Charlie Radcliffe (left) and Caroline Buckley (right) took early graduation photos on the Colonnade. Photo courtesy of Charlie Radcliffe.

Hannah Denham

As spring term wraps up online, senior students are slated to graduate virtually with a livestreamed ceremony on Thursday, May 28.

Faculty and staff will greet students in pre-recorded videos, and students could send in photos when their names are read on screen. Students had the option to receive their cap and gown in the mail, pick them up on campus or wait until the in-person ceremony in May 2021. Diplomas will be sent to students by mail.

Some seniors who have stayed in off-campus housing in Lexington have taken to the Colonnade for early photographs in their caps and gowns. Some seniors plan to gather on the Colonnade, six feet apart, to watch the online ceremony together, said Jack Jahries, ‘20.

Jenna Kim, ‘20, said she and her housemates and boyfriend Chris Messerich, ‘20, plan to virtually graduate on the Colonnade with a picnic.

“It was sensible to cancel graduation, because the virus is still novel and we are yet to fully understand its mechanisms,” Kim said in an email. “It eliminates our risk to exposure and allows us to practice social responsibility.”

Donovan Fiore, ‘20, has stayed off-campus in Lexington since the university moved to remote learning, but he plans to fly home to be with his family to celebrate his virtual graduation.

“This year, it’s a matter of making the best of what we have,” Fiore said in an email. “I’m so fortunate to have a close family who is still celebrating this accomplishment despite the weird circumstances around the end of the year.”

Harris Billings, ‘20, said in an email that he’ll also be home with his family for virtual graduation, and is looking forward to returning to Lexington to graduate in-person next year.

“There is a lot of closure that I think a lot of us haven’t really had yet with campus so it will be nice to see Lexington and all of the professors and people I didn’t get to properly say goodbye to,” he said.

The in-person graduation ceremony for the class of 2020 is scheduled for Sunday, May 23, 2021. University President Will Dudley said in a May 1 email that weekend dates were selected so that more graduating students and their families could return to Lexington.

Aimée Rodriguez, ‘20, said in an email that she thinks the university made the right decision to postpone the in-person ceremony, but she doesn’t think it should be as late as May 2021.

“As someone who’s primary family members largely consist of individuals over age 65+, trying to do anything within the next few months feels at the very least negligent. I am not willing to be a public health risk to myself and others,” Rodriguez said. “[But] it feels silly to me to wait almost an entire year for a ceremony when, by that date, I will already have my diploma.”

Fiore will be working as a fellow with Trinity Church in Charlottesville next year, so he plans to make the roughly hour drive to Lexington for in-person graduation in May 2021.

“I approve of the cautious steps the university is taking, balancing the unique, small-classroom culture of W&L with mandatory safety precautions,” he said. “I appreciate the university’s care and acknowledgment of the science behind the virus, and I trust their decisions ahead with going forward. I’m so grateful for everything W&L has given us over these years.”

Rodriguez said she also wonders about the economic hassle for some students and their families to return to Lexington.

“I doubt everyone is going to show up, because like myself, they probably cannot justify gathering family members and putting aside funds for staying in and around Lexington,” she said. “Why should I spend my money when I (presumably) would have a job already for almost a full year?”

Abby Miller, ‘20, said in an email that she doubts that she’ll be able to return to Lexington for in-person graduation. She just signed a contract to work in Japan for a year and is planning to leave in September.

Jahries said he hopes to return to campus for the in-person ceremony next year, but isn’t sure if he’ll make it, either.

“The reality for so many seniors is that we just don’t know where we’ll be a year from now,” Jahries said in an email. “Coupled with the fact that it’s on a Sunday, I’m not sure it would slide with future employers.”

Lorena Terroba Urruchua, ‘21, said she’s upset that the class of 2020 will graduate just four days before hers on May 27, 2021.

“It seems like a cop-out from the school to not set up twice and will restrict our parents from being able to get hotels for our graduation,” she said. “It feels insensitive to complain about, but it’s a big worry from parents and students in my class.”

Rodriguez echoed Terroba Urruchua’s concern.

“We are also not the only graduating class that has and will be affected by this pandemic, so the idea of going back to campus after I had my time feels borderline disrespectful to the underclassmen I have met and their peers,” she said. “The Class of 2021 is a class of folks who have endured and survived this ordeal just like we have.”

Jahries said he worries about the health of Lexington and Rockbridge area residents.

“I respect the priorities that the university has set with all of this craziness,” he said. “In the end, ensuring that the community stays safe is my number one priority, and if that means I can’t walk across the colonnade in 100 degree weather, I’m ok with it.”

Billings says that he worries about finding a place to stay in Lexington when he returns for in-person graduation, but he’s excited to return.

“As for the university’s decision, I really think what they are doing is amazing,” he said. “I haven’t personally heard of any other school doing this. The fact that they are welcoming us back to let us celebrate together is amazing to me.”

Kim said she will only come back to Lexington to graduate in person next year if she is still living in Virginia because of transportation costs and a limited ability to take time off work.

“It is upsetting to think about how COVID-19 robbed both our graduation and for many of us, our jobs,” she said. “It’s pretty bittersweet, though, because the university is still taking the time to give us a proper graduation, even though it is belated. I’m hoping that most of us, if not all of us, are able to attend. It will be beautiful to be reunited with the tight family I built here.”