Photos from the 2017 Spring Commencement ceremony for the University of Georgia Class of 2017 in Sanford Stadium in Athens, Georgia, on Friday, May 5, 2017. (Photo/Casey Sykes, www.caseysykes.com)

Seniors at the University of Georgia are petitioning for a rescheduled commencement ceremony.

Spring commencement for the undergraduate and graduate class of 2020 won’t be held as scheduled, per the University System of Georgia, which required UGA to cancel all public events including commencement.

An hour after receiving the email notifying students the commencement ceremony was canceled, Hanna Jon Lewis asked President Jere Morehead to consider holding the ceremony later this summer. Her friend encouraged her to use the letter to Morehead to start a petition, which, as of press time, has received over 19,000 signatures on change.org.

“Since then, I've received some responses from university officials and faculty, and everyone's been really understanding and supportive,” Lewis, a senior digital marketing major, said.

However, Lewis said since university officials are still trying to manage current issues involving COVID-19, they haven’t committed to a later commencement ceremony. She said she understands the concerns around having a commencement ceremony in May but believes it’s important to have a ceremony at some point, ideally in the summer, if issues due to the COVID-19 pandemic have improved.

In a recent update to the petition, however, due to the increased cases of COVID-19, Lewis suggested moving the December 2020 commencement to Sanford Stadium in order to include spring graduates as well.

A lack of closure

When Lewis left for spring break, she — like many seniors — looked forward to returning to campus and enjoying her last moments as a UGA student.

“We were looking forward to taking our graduation photos and ringing the bell to celebrate and standing on Dooley Field and watching the fireworks or walking under the Arch for the first time as graduates, and now all of those lasts and special moments have been ripped out from under us in the span of a few days,” Lewis said.

Lewis said a commencement ceremony would give her a sense of closure, a sentiment shared by other seniors, such as Mckenzie Hedrick. When Hedrick left for spring break and later found out she wouldn’t return to campus for her final semester, she didn’t truly process it until a friend posted about how she “is never going to take a step on campus as a student again.”

Long road to graduation

Adyam Negasi, an international affairs and political science double major, said she understands why UGA canceled the commencement ceremony in May but said she hopes the university can consider Lewis’ proposal to hold commencement later in the year.

It was a long and winding road for Negasi to reach this point in her academic career. She had graduated from language training in the Air Force to serve as an Arabic translator before starting her undergraduate degree at a different college. She later transferred to UGA in January 2017, near the age of 27. During her time at UGA, she faced many obstacles.

“[In January 2017] I just experienced my twin dying. I wasn't coping with it. Depression set in later. My marriage was failing. I didn't even realize it until 2018, and it seemed like UGA was the one thing that brought me everything I needed to keep me alive and keep me going,” Negasi said.

Negasi credits the faculty and staff at the Student Veterans Resource Center, the Honors Program and the School of Public and International Affairs for helping her through difficult times. With their support, she earned the Boren Scholarship, which allowed her to go to Jordan for six months and participate in the Washington Semester Program in D.C., where she interned at the U.S. Department of State.

By participating in those programs, Negasi postponed her graduation by a year, which she said makes commencement even more meaningful to her.

“It’s the final end to everything that I’ve done for the past 30 years on this earth,” Negasi said. “[Commencement is] something that seems really small, but to me, it’s a really big milestone.”

As a first-generation college student, Negasi also wants to make her parents, who immigrated from East Africa, proud. Her brothers were also born in East Africa and earned GED diplomas, making her sister, who graduated from nursing school, and her the only ones to earn college degrees.

“We are the only two first generation children in our entire bloodline who fully graduated with American college degrees so those little symbols and ceremonies mean a whole lot to people like us,” Negasi said.

Rite of passage

As an animal science and biological science double major, Hedrick understands the university’s concerns about protecting students and students’ families health. Still, she sees commencement as a necessary and symbolic end to her college career. As a fifth-year student, she watched her boyfriend and high school friends graduate last year.

“I got to watch all their families stand up and cheer for them and spend the day appreciating all of the hard work that it took and acknowledge that, and it just sucks because I’m not going to get that same acknowledgment,” Hedrick said.

Hedrick considered alternatives to a commencement ceremony, such as a plaque or an item sent to each student so they could remember UGA. She said holding a ceremony later might be difficult to coordinate because of uncertainty around when the severity of the COVID-19 outbreak will lessen. She also said a lot of students may not be able to attend because of their new jobs.

Hedrick said holding a later ceremony would depend on the University System of Georgia. In a perfect world graduates could have a ceremony later in the year, but she doesn’t want to hope for that after everything she has experienced, Hedrick said.

“I’m trying not to get my hopes up I guess,” Hedrick said. “I just need to try to come to terms with it just in case they don’t.”

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