Graduating during the pandemic: How Church schools are seeking to honor graduates despite COVID-19 restrictions

When she pictured graduating from college, Kaylee Esplin anticipated several iconic moments. Donning the long black gown with her cap and tassel. Having her name called to the applause of her friends and family and walking across the stage to receive her diploma. Throwing her cap in the air alongside her cohort of graduates.

Esplin’s experience, however, will be much different. Instead, the BYU graduate majoring in communications is planning to watch the virtual commencement ceremony on April 23 from the apartment of her brother, who is also graduating.  

Esplin is one of thousands of students whose last year of education — including graduation — has been punctuated by COVID-19 restrictions and health guidelines.

It’s a little tough to feel the significance of the occasion without the pomp and circumstance of a traditional convocation, Esplin said.

“There’s something about the image of putting on your cap and gown and walking through the Marriott Center for the last time,” she said. 

Eve Gonzales from Texas graduated from BYU–Hawaii on April 17, 2021, following a year of the pandemic.
Eve Gonzales from Texas graduated from BYU–Hawaii on April 17, 2021, following a year of the pandemic. Credit: Monique Saenz, BYU–Hawaii

Esplin appreciates the efforts of the university and her professors and mentors to acknowledge her achievement. “It’s nice to have them kind of help me remember that it’s a big accomplishment.” It also helps to give her a sense of closure, she said.

Like Ensign College, BYU–Idaho and BYU–Hawaii, BYU has been working to help celebrate and honor their graduates, in new, mostly virtual ways.

Brett Sampson, BYU–Idaho’s public affairs director, said the entire campus has worked to “do what we can” within the established health parameters to provide a sense of normalcy to graduates.

“We want the graduates … to feel a sense of their great accomplishments and know how proud we are to have them as alumni,” Sampson said.

And students and their families have been patient through the process, he noted.

Graduation statistics for BYU-Idaho for April 2021.
Graduation statistics for BYU-Idaho for April 2021.

Kaitlyn Carlson, who graduated in communication from BYU–Idaho on April 8, said the university did everything possible under the circumstances to make graduates feel connected, despite not having a large event on campus. 

In an online convocation through her department all the graduating seniors submitted a photo and were recognized in a slideshow. 

The university also sent emails offering congratulations to each graduate, and through social media invited them to share and reflect on their time at the university. 

“It felt good to be acknowledged,” said Carlson, whose last year was entirely online. “Especially with not physically being on campus, I still felt connected to the university.”

Graduation statistics for BYU for April 2021.
Graduation statistics for BYU for April 2021.

Ensign College and BYU–Hawaii also created a PowerPoint presentation of all the graduates names and photos that ran after the commencement addresses. Ensign College, who had 438 graduates during their winter commencement on April 9, also mailed a cap and tassel to each graduate and hosted a live Graduate Celebration over Zoom.

BYU, who is awarding about 6,200 degrees during their commencement ceremony on April 23, is trying to keep the online ceremony as close to regular as possible — but without filling the 19,000-seat Marriott Center. Photos of the graduating students will be displayed on the big screen behind the speaker. Each college department will provide its own virtual convocation. 

Sampson said although there are fewer participating in the virtual commencements and convocations than would attend in person, those who really want to have a celebratory experience are taking advantage of it.

Graduation statistics for BYU–Hawaii for April 2021.
Graduation statistics for BYU–Hawaii for April 2021.

Over the last year he’s seen graduates in their caps and gowns taking photos in front of university signs and other campus landmarks, just like they would during a pre-COVID-19 semester.

One couple flew in from the East Coast to dress up and take their graduating daughter out for a nice dinner. Then they all sat together to watch the online commencement. 

“They wanted their daughter to feel their support and some sense of gathering,” Sampson said. “It wasn’t what any of them expected when she started her college education, but her feelings of achievement and having her parents here in Rexburg are what mattered most to her.”

Graduation statistics for Ensign College for April 2021.
Graduation statistics for Ensign College for April 2021.

Although Lucas Gomes de Araujo was disappointed not to have his “honor walk” moment, as a speaker during the online commencement ceremony for Ensign College he was relieved not to be staring down at hundreds of faces. “I actually liked that I was only talking to the camera,” he said with a laugh.

Another silver lining for the native Brazilian was that the virtual forums allowed his family down in Brasilia to watch and feel a part of his accomplishment.

Terrence A. Dela Peña, a BYU-Hawaii graduate from Antipolo City, Philippines, majoring in political science, and his wife, Ana Katrina Fugaban-Dela Peña, who graduated in social work, expressed similar sentiments.

While the BYU–Hawaii online commencement took place on Saturday, April 17, at 9:30 a.m., the Dela Peñas’ families tuned in to watch, despite it being 3:30 a.m. in the Philippines. 

BYU-Hawaii graduates Terrence A. Dela Peña and his wife, Ana Christina Dela Peña, and their sons pose for a photo prior to participating in the commencement ceremony broadcast on Saturday, April 17, 2021.
BYU-Hawaii graduates Terrence A. Dela Peña and his wife, Ana Christina Dela Peña, and their sons pose for a photo prior to participating in the commencement ceremony broadcast on Saturday, April 17, 2021. Credit: Joshua Sanchez, BYU–Hawaii

Terrence Dela Peña, who represented his graduating class as the student speaker during commencement, said their families were so excited for them and missed them so much, they were willing to get up early to show their support. 

There are definitely pluses and minuses involved in graduating during a pandemic, said Beth O’Brien, who will be graduating with her master’s degree in social work from BYU. But she primarily feels gratitude.

O’Brien knows of many other social work programs that were shut down or delayed during the pandemic, but her BYU program ensured she was able to complete her internships.

BYU student Beth O'Brien will be receiving her master's degree in social work on April 23, 2021.
BYU student Beth O’Brien will be receiving her master’s degree in social work on April 23, 2021. Credit: BYU Photo

“Our field team went above and beyond in securing us continued opportunities to be able to be out in the field, getting the hands-on experience, even in the pandemic,” O’Brien said. “I feel really grateful.”

Sampson said one collective outcome of the pandemic is the sense that “we’re all in this together.” While there is some disappointment that certain milestones aren’t happening the way people expected, he said, there is also an overwhelming sense of gratitude that graduates were able to achieve their educational goals.

When Terrence Dela Peña and his wife first flew to Oahu to attend BYU–Hawaii, his oldest son Reese was 5 months old. During their time in Laie, he and his wife were full-time students, he worked part-time and they added another son, Kyle, to their family. 

Twenty years from now, Terrence Dela Peña said he’s going to remember less about the commencement ceremony and more about how those years at BYU–Hawaii provided them with an education and memories of raising their little family. “I feel like we built our foundation as a family while we were here at BYU–Hawaii. We’re hoping that we keep on building on that as we move forward from the campus,” he said.