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Graduates reflect on hybrid Commencement

Class of 2021 expresses mixed reactions toward University plan, looks forward to in-person elements

This article is the third in the four-part series "An Unexpected Commencement: The Class of 2021 Looks Back, and Forward"

Graduating seniors in the class of 2021 will conclude their time at Brown with a hybrid Commencement May 2, capping off over a year of virtual classes, social distancing and navigating a global pandemic.

In order to comply with Rhode Island’s 1,000 person limit on gatherings, the University will host Commencement in two separate, back-to-back ceremonies, according to an April 8 email sent to students in the class of 2021 and 2021.5. Graduating students were able to choose whether to register for the ceremony at 10:00 a.m. or 2:30 p.m. 

Families and other guests will have to attend the ceremonies remotely, the University announced in January

“Many of the things we are dealing with are not ideal,” said Executive Vice President for Planning and Policy Russell Carey ’91 MA’06. “We would prefer to have the whole class together, but we think this is a good option in the additional benefit of including the ’21.5s. We’re very pleased to be able to do that.”

The Herald spoke with six graduating seniors about what a hybrid Commencement means to them, and about how COVID-19 has affected their senior year. 

Graduating during a pandemic

Because the class of 2020 was never able to celebrate their graduation in-person, Margaret Thoren ’21 is “really excited that we do have an opportunity to do some sort of in-person celebration,” she said. “I'm glad they were kind of able to give us something … instead of letting everything go virtual.”

Kaitlyn Cook ’21 said she is “very proud” of the University for ensuring that seniors get a graduation this year. “It’s going to be so special” to “get to experience something with the Brown community again,” she said. “I’m very much looking forward to it.”

Cook said she hopes that the University will celebrate the classes of 2020 and 2021 more formally once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.

Reet Agrawal ’21.5, who will be participating in the graduation ceremony despite having one more semester left at the University, also expressed gratitude that “there is still some form of in-person ceremony this year.” 

It is a “big deal” that students formally graduating in the fall semester, like herself, are included in the ceremony, Agrawal said, especially because it wasn’t until recently that the University announced that midyear students could attend graduation.

Eram Mallick ’21 said she feels like the current plan for Commencement is “the best compromise” given the circumstances, especially since other colleges such as Columbia University are not hosting in-person graduation this year. 

“I feel very lucky to be able to walk in person because I really do think that this is a momentous occasion for me and my family,” she said. “I feel really badly for the class of 2020, who had to miss out on walking the stage.”

Nidhi Bhaskar ’21, on the other hand, is “not too thrilled” with the University’s plans for Commencement. 

“They've cobbled together this very makeshift graduation, and a lot of graduation is spending time with family and friends,” she said. “I appreciate that they made this effort to make it have the semblance of normalcy, but I would have preferred they delay it and have a proper graduation later.”

Nidhi Bhaskar’s mother, Shobha Bhaskar, wrote in an email to The Herald that she is similarly disappointed that she will not be able to attend the event. “Nidhi is our only child, and we were looking forward to a traditional graduation ceremony which is a major milestone in life,” Shobha Bhaskar wrote. “But we understand the constraints given the current public health situation and we have come to terms with it.”

Shobha Bhaskhar is still grateful that the class of 2021 will still be able to attend Commencement in-person and participate in traditions such as “the iconic walk through the Van Wickle gates,” she wrote. 

Mallick also feels that, because of COVID-19 guidelines, the general feelings and expectations around graduation week on campus are different. Reminiscing and celebrating with friends must take place on a smaller scale, she added. 

“The electricity and the excitement in the air isn't as pronounced as it probably usually is in previous years in which there were people out and about,” Mallick said. “Regardless, we're graduating, and that's enough for me.”

Celebrating Commencement creatively

Seniors — and their families — have come up with creative ways to celebrate Commencement while still abiding by public health guidelines put in place by the University. 

Cook is looking forward to “safely celebrating” graduation with the friends that live with her off-campus, including hosting outdoor brunch and other activities after the ceremony. There will “definitely (be) mimosas” she said, laughing while assuring that her friends are all 21 or older.

“It's going to be hard to not have our whole family there to celebrate with us,” Cook acknowledged. Her father will be watching her graduate virtually from California. “He's really sad that he won't be able to celebrate graduation with me because it's his last daughter graduating college and he's very proud of that fact,” she said. “I wish that he could be here to watch me.”

Sumera Subzwari ’21, from Miami, expressed similar shared sadness. “My family feels pretty bad that after all of these years, after going through a lot of … both happy and difficult experiences … they won't be able to celebrate with me in person.”

Still, some parts of having to attend Commencement virtually have turned out to be a “silver lining” for Thoren’s family, she said, as both she and her twin sister who attends Duke University will graduate on the same day.

“That would be a bit of a tricky situation,” she said. Now, her family will watch both ceremonies remotely from their home in Washington, D.C. 

Despite being unable to watch the ceremony from Brown’s campus, Bhaskar’s parents said they “will make the best of our time together and look forward to a lovely celebratory dinner — with champagne of course!” 

To celebrate with her friends and other members of the class of 2021, Bhaskar also organized a “Senior Scavenger Hunt”, which is open to all seniors through a Facebook group. With more than 30 pods currently enrolled, the scavenger hunt consists of a series of challenges that seniors can compete in with their pods and then upload pictures to the Facebook groups. The pod with the most challenges completed will get brunch delivered to their door.

With challenges ranging from “recreate your favorite dining hall food,” to “do your own naked donut run,” and “find the best rooftop view in Providence,” Bhaskar hopes that the scavenger hunt can create unity and help seniors create memories.

Bhaskar said that she created the scavenger hunt as a shared bucket list for the class of 2021 — something that would bring the class together while helping seniors make the most of their last weeks at Brown.

"Senior year especially, it's all about making memories, especially with the community you've created at Brown," Bhaskar said. The scavenger hunt is “not a replacement, but kind of a supplement."

While Mallick and her parents are disappointed that her family will not be able to attend Commencement in-person, she plans on still making the most of her last few weeks on campus with her friends. When she returns home, she will have a small celebration. 

“I'll be with my friends that are essentially my family away from home,” Mallick said. “I regret that those two circles cannot meet in Providence … but I'm confident that the class of 2021 will will be able to return to the Brown campus once COVID guidelines are lifted.”

Despite planning activities with friends for graduation, the event will be bittersweet for Agrawal: She wishes her parents who live in India could be in the audience as she receives her diploma. Her family had been looking forward to graduation since she started college, as none of them have graduated from college in the United States.

It’s “the best that we could have right now and that’s great, but at the same time … the loss is still kind of irrecoverable,” Agrawal said.

Additional reporting from Livia Gimenes



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