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University of Georgia Class of 2020 graduates walk through the Arch with their friends instead of the typical graduation ceremony in Athens on Friday, May 8. (Photo/Erin Schilling, 404.291.9654)

On April 17, University of Georgia President Jere W. Morehead announced the postponement of the spring commencement ceremony to Oct. 16 at 6:30 p.m.

Traditionally, commencement is held at the end of the academic year each May in Sanford Stadium. Family, peers and faculty gather together to celebrate the graduates and their accomplishments before taking their next step in life. In the wake of the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, the ceremony had to be rescheduled, but Morehead issued a congratulatory online message to graduates on the originally scheduled date of May 8. 

According to UGA’s commencement website, the ceremony will proceed following the social distancing guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Athens-Clarke County. Designated seats in the stadium will be marked by red chair backs or vinyl wrappers. Seats are organized in groups of four and two, and guests are asked to not sit with other parties.

Masks are required, and a livestream will be offered for graduates not attending, as well as those who are unable to attend or deemed high-risk individuals by the CDC.

On Sept. 29, graduates were asked to request a maximum of four tickets via their UGA email, forcing them to choose three loved ones who would attend the ceremony. 

Kyle Farrell, a spring 2020 journalism graduate, said this was one of his reasons for electing to not attend this Friday’s commencement. 

Combined with facing an eight-hour drive from his current residence in Louisiana and the disappointment of having no visual representation of his four years of hard work, Farrell determined that attending the ceremony five months after receiving his degree would be more trouble than it’s worth. 

“It was a weird decision to make because I was looking forward to the original date. Being post-grad, I have to do something with my life. While I could have stayed in Georgia, I needed to do something bigger for myself,” Farrell said. “Despite there being an extra opportunity to have commencement, I made the decision not to go.”

Farrell also had hopeful plans for his future, such as moving to New York to pursue a career, that were cancelled in light of the pandemic. In spite of the changes, he understands that commencement cannot proceed as usual.

Sarah Hawkins, a public relations graduate, will not attend the belated commencement because she realizes the ceremony will lack the traditional aspect she associates with graduating.

“It’s kind of double-sided,” Hawkins said of her feelings toward the ceremony.  “On one hand, I really respect that they’re taking into consideration the safety of students and their guests and not providing an environment for coronavirus to spread. But then again, on the other hand, as a graduating senior this is not what anyone envisioned. It kind of takes away the appeal of a graduation.” 

Hawkins said that for most graduating seniors, part of the fun is celebrating with friends and family, something that is not feasible when coupled with social distancing guidelines. 

“I think the graduation that they’re putting on now is just not what anyone, at least in my friend group, had envisioned for our graduation. So rather than make the trip to Athens, I think we’re going to celebrate as a small friend group,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins also noted that, unlike others, her transition to the workforce was an easy one. “I don’t think the pandemic and shutting down school and having to do class at home really impacted my personal transition into the workplace. I feel very lucky,” Hawkins reflected. 

Work conflicts were the most common reason for missing the ceremony among themselves and their friends, the graduates said. 

Nav Singh, who graduated with a degree in pharmaceutical sciences, said that sacrificing his graduation dreams would best ensure public safety. 

“I know it would have been fun to celebrate with my friends at the usual Sanford graduation, but at the end of the day I was able to get my degree and make my mom proud, and that’s all that really matters to me,” Singh said.

Singh added that he also had doubts about the enforcement of safety guidelines after noticing that many graduates posed for unmasked photos on social media. “I have noticed people commit to proper safety precautions in public, but for some reason do not apply those same measures when it comes to their friends,” Singh said.

Despite the challenges and differences of this year’s ceremony, some graduates still chose to attend.

Austin Gibbons, who double-majored in political science and public relations, said that celebrations such as graduation are a tradition not easily strayed from in his family.

“While I am an only child, my extended family is large and graduations are a bedrock tradition for all of us to gather together and celebrate,” said Gibbons. 

Although Gibbons regrets that only a few of his immediate family members could attend, they were determined to make the best of it. 

“Once again though, we understand the university is implementing necessary public health precautions, and we are ready to show up with cap, gown, camera, mask and hand sanitizer in tow,” Gibbons said. “I am sure some aunts, uncles and cousins will be watching the livestream and reminding my parents to take lots of pictures.”

While disappointed that he could not celebrate his success as previous graduates have done in years past, Gibbons said the pandemic allowed him to reflect and take time for himself.

Gibbons said that overcoming the cancellation of the end of senior year, as well as job searching in a COVID-19 world, proved the tenacity of his fellow Bulldogs.

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