‘We had our last in-person classes and none of us knew it’: Seniors grieve canceled in-person commencement due to coronavirus

Butler’s commencement 2020 has been canceled due to coronavirus. Photo courtesy of butler.edu.

JOE KRISKO | STAFF REPORTER | jkrisko@butler.edu 

Over the last few weeks, coronavirus has rapidly changed people’s everyday lives. Many events and ceremonies, once fixed in calendars months and years ahead of time, have been postponed or canceled. At Butler, one of these events is the spring commencement ceremony, previously scheduled for May 9.

On March 17, Butler President James Danko sent out a message to students announcing that classes would remain online for the remainder of the semester and commencement would be canceled. This came just one day after Governor Eric Holcomb announced restrictions on gatherings of more than 10 people in an effort to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Despite these restrictions, Danko said in the email announcement to students that the university was still exploring other ways to celebrate the class of 2020. 

“We are investigating ways to coordinate a virtual convening of representatives of the senior class along with relevant University administrators to recognize this milestone in their Butler career,” Danko said in the email.

On that same day, Allie Moffet, a senior strategic communication major, had already started a petition to get the ceremony postponed to a later date this summer. As of March 24, the petition gained signatures from over 2,000 people, including students and their family members. 

Moffet said she plans to send the petition to Danko when the number of signatures being added starts to slow down. She said she also hopes to convey some of the messages shared by Butler community members on the petition and the strength of the support for the postponement.

“Though the Butler community can’t come together physically, we’re still as strong as ever, and we just want to be able to celebrate in person again at a time that’s safer for everyone,” Moffet said.

In a later email to the student body on March 18, Kathryn Morris, University Provost and vice president of academic affairs, said options for holding the ceremony at a later date are being considered. Morris said in the email that a group of representatives from the senior class will help come up with other ways to celebrate their achievements.

In an interview with The Butler Collegian on March 21, Morris said those students have been identified but have not been involved in any conversation yet.

“We do want to make sure that the graduating students, both undergraduates and graduates, have an opportunity to have a say in what we would do,” Morris said.

In the same interview with the Collegian, Danko said the phrasing of the original cancelation announcement needed clarification — it’s not canceled, as they are brainstorming different ways to have a commencement, but “there’s really no conversation right now.” 

“I think that the hear and now, the reality is that we are open to all options and opportunities to celebrate commencement,” Danko said. “But as of yet, it just would be impractical, and there’s too many bigger decisions right now to confront, to be convening a group to talk through what commencement would look like.”

He and Morris added that one option being explored is to have the ceremony combined with the December commencement. Other options include a virtual ceremony or delaying the ceremony to another date.

Morris said, speaking only for herself, postponing the ceremony to a later date is not the best option because there are too many uncertainties with the spread of the coronavirus. However, the decision will be forthcoming.

“It wouldn’t make sense to make it right now,” Morris said.

Whatever the alternative situation might be, Danko remained committed to making sure the event would still be special for students and their families.

“I think we’re going to kind of pull out all stops to make sure that we don’t lose that special moment,” Danko said.

Moffet said she understood why in-person classes had to be ended early as well, and agreed with the decision to do so, but it still remained disappointing that she might not see some people again.

“We all had our last day at Butler as students and we had our last in-person classes and none of us knew it,” Moffet said. “Goodbyes are never easy and things ending are never easy, but typically you know that it’s going to end or you know when you have to say goodbye and that was not what any of us expected.” 

SJ Baker, a senior economics and history major, also supported changing the original plans for commencement in the interest of public health and safety, but was disappointed when she heard it would be canceled as well.

“I felt like I was kicked in the gut because it suddenly really hit me that I was never going to go to class at Butler again or get to decorate my cap and gown and celebrate that moment with my friends and family,” Baker said.

In addition to commencement, seniors will miss out on other events they had planned for the rest of the year. Jacob Herr, a senior theater and history major, had been planning a production of one of his favorite courtroom dramas for this April. After two years of work, the cancelation of events on campus meant that his show was canceled as well. 

Herr had worked to organize a script and cast for the production, gained approval from the theater department and arranged for a venue on campus before he found out that he would no longer be able to put on the show as he expected. He said his show will now be limited to a script reading on Facebook Live. 

Herr said the cancelation made him feel like his work was seen as unimportant.

“It certainly meant everything to me; it certainly meant everything to my cast and the people who were able to help me make this thing possible,” Herr said.

Other universities in Indiana are moving forward with commencement ceremonies in different ways. Purdue University is planning a virtual commencement ceremony and will give students the option to participate in an in-person ceremony at a future date if they choose to do so.

Indiana University has postponed its commencement ceremony indefinitely until it would no longer pose a threat to public health to hold such a large gathering. At this time, Notre Dame still plans to hold its commencement ceremony as planned on May 17.

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