Georgetown displayed significantly nimble moves in quickly transforming commencement activities from virtual ceremonies to an unprecedented two-event in-person commencement at the Washington Nationals Park this Monday.
Not all students, faculty, and staff had a chance to be part of the event, so it seems right to describe some of the atmosphere.
First, our collective thanks must go out to a set of administrative staff who worked day and night from the moment the city government signaled permission to hold outdoor ceremonies. We will never have a fully documented history of their work, only the product of their work, but I know that it took a village of our colleagues. The events themselves will be their legacy.
Second, the scene bred a palpable sense that we were living history: The first time in living memory that an off-campus outdoor event was held. The first time that all schools were combined as one university in celebrating the completion of programs. The first time we were in a stadium with a jumbotron and audio bouncing off the park’s structures. The first time there was no in-person backup plan if it rained.
Third, the enthusiasm of the graduates was equal to or greater than that we experience in the traditional commencements. There was whooping and hollering. There were attempts to start a Hoya-Saxa rhythmic chant. There were shout-outs from family and friends when the name of a graduate was recognized. There was a tendency for smaller programs, with tight bonds among the students, to have extended cheers for each graduate in the program.
Throughout the ceremony and after its close, on the concourses there were stations for schools and programs, designed to form a backdrop for photographs of multiple graduates, of graduates and their families, and of graduates and faculty and deans. They were popular and were the site of more cheering.
Of note is the fact that, while the rain held off for the undergraduate morning ceremony, it did not cooperate for the afternoon graduate ceremony. It was pouring about 5-6pm. From the speakers’ stand I glanced from time to time at faculty and student clusters. Many of those were soaked through and through by the rain, but they stayed. Other fled to the concourses where big screens conveyed the program. Others drifted to seating that was protected from the elements. My thanks to the Nats officials for their flexibility regarding that seating. Most graduates stayed through the entire ceremony and didn’t let the rain interfere with their joyous moment.
Fourth, the attendees clearly appreciated the efforts of the University to mount, under great time pressures, an event so genuinely designed to honor the graduates and to thank the parents and families. Their thanks validated the work of the prior weeks.
Fifth, and most personally uplifting was that colleagues were together in the same place at the same time. This was an unexpectedly powerful experience. Upon reflection over the last few days, it’s clear that a life on Zoom has eliminated certain kinds of interaction. Zoom is often group interaction. It’s difficult to have one-on-one dialogue. Zoom has grown to be a “business” tool; discussion is focused on the task at hand. Zoom has eliminated bumping into to a colleague on the way to the same meeting, or exiting next to one another – situations lending themselves to informal conversations that lead to strengthened relationships. Finally, Zoom requires a level of organization that dampens serendipitous encounters. On Monday, many of us had some of those brief but meaningful moments.
This last point fuels a stronger desire to come back together as a university, to be in the same room with our colleagues, to have chance meetings on campus, to share a lunch with a co-worker – in essence to rebind the Georgetown community within our shared spaces. I can’t wait.