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Pomp and unusual circumstances: A guide to very different college commencements on LI

College graduation season is approaching.

College graduation season is approaching. Credit: Getty Images/iStock/skynesher

Long Island’s colleges and universities are coming up with commencement plans tailored for a pandemic that range from entirely remote to car caravans to in-person stadium ceremonies, with and without guests.

All the schools are trying to give grads at least a taste of tradition in a COVID-19 year that has been far from normal.

State guidelines announced this month by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo allowed for greater capacity and guests at commencements, and some universities took advantage to elaborate on already planned in-person ceremonies.

Long Island University said it would permit graduates to bring two guests to its outdoor ceremony May 13, with more ceremonies to be scheduled depending on attendance to maintain social distancing.

Hofstra University in Uniondale plans to open its stadium May 24-25, "rain or shine," to grads and two guests each, for events that also will be broadcast for friends and family unable to attend. One of the ceremonies will be for graduates of the Class of 2020, who graduated when their campus was shut down in the pandemic’s initial months.

"You’ve shown great dedication and persistence, working under tremendous stress and under less-than-ideal conditions for the past years," Hofstra Provost Herman Berliner wrote to graduating students. "Your achievements are laudable and we could not be more proud of the Class of 2020-21."

Stony Brook University announced in March that it would hold 10 outdoor ceremonies at its stadium to accommodate its graduates from May 19 to 21, including three for its arts and science undergraduates alone. It just announced that grads can bring two guests to watch, and will walk across the stage while their name is read.

"Grads who are virtual will also have their names read so that they can hear their names aloud from home," spokeswoman Emily Cappiello said. "And, yes, grads will be sitting six feet apart on the field."

Molloy College in Rockville Centre had been planning both virtual and in-person scenarios since the fall, said Janine Biscari, vice president of student affairs, and decided on a solution that is both in-person and drive-in.

"It’s drive-in for family and friends, but the graduates are going to come out of their cars and walk across the stage in the Madison Theatre," she said. "They’ll be able to get their diploma and graduation photo," the traditional components of commencement, while "everyone in the car will be able to see what’s happening in the theater" from 10 "huge LED screens" set up in the parking lots. Ceremonies are set for May 18 and 19.

"A lot depended on the occupancy," Biscari said, noting 100 people were permitted in the theater at one time with 12 to 15 onstage, 70 faculty in the audience, and "the rest is wiggle room for graduates queuing up for the stage. We had to be very strategic about this. It’s like a giant puzzle."

At St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue and New York City, hybrid commencements will feature a virtual Toast to Graduates, followed by "several short commencement ceremonies the following day" for graduates from 2021 and 2020 and guests filling outdoor tents to 33% capacity per ceremony.

"We are thrilled to be able to offer our students on both campuses a chance to celebrate their achievement, in person and with members of their families present," St. Joseph’s President Donald R. Boomgaarden said.

Ceremonies for Patchogue students have been scheduled for June 4-6, according to the college's website.

Farmingdale State College will repeat last year’s "car-mencement," in which graduates and their families are livestreamed in an on-campus car caravan that rolls slowly by a roadside podium where the college president, John Nader, will read off the graduate’s name posted on the car doors.

"Last time, we had about 300 cars and many faculty and staff lined the roadway and cheered on the students," spokesman Patrick Calabria said. "It really was a heartwarming event." Graduation is set for May 22.

But not all schools were able to shift from virtual events to in-person by the time guidelines came out.

"Unfortunately, the announcement by the governor came too late," said Drew Biondo, spokesman for Suffolk County Community College. "Graduation planning began in late February, and the college engaged outside vendors to assist with aspects of the virtual graduation."

The college said 4,021 students could potentially participate in its May 20 commencement, including 1,225 January graduates, 2,430 potential May graduates and 366 potential August graduates. The virtual recorded ceremony will feature student speakers from each campus, remarks from administrators and faculty, and personalized video messages from graduates who can also reserve 15-minute slots for campus photos with two family members in the days before.

Nassau Community College’s virtual commencement May 23 will be followed the next day by a car caravan of graduates on campus with details still to come.

Colleges are trying to inject an element of "in real life" experiences to flesh out the virtual commencements.

Graduates and family members at Adelphi University in Garden City can reserve a time slot for an "Adelphi Grad Walk" across the University Center ballroom stage for photos. It’s an opportunity for graduates "to have their moment walking across the stage — which so many students expressed to be important," the university announcement said. A virtual graduation is set for May 24.

New York Institute of Technology’s graduates also can arrange a professional portrait and "Stroll Across the Stage" with their name "professionally announced" at the school gym, according to the school’s online announcement about events complementing its virtual ceremony. The virtual commencement is set for May 23.

SUNY Old Westbury’s 2021 graduating class of 1,400 is its biggest ever, spokesman Michael Kinane said. Their commencement will be virtual, he said in an email: "During that event, graduates will be formally presented [by our provost] and approved [by our president] and will be instructed to move their tassels wherever they are as they view the ceremony." Smaller in-person ceremonies also are planned. The virtual commencement is scheduled for May 23.

Five Towns College in Dix Hills, a performing arts school with 650 students and 200 faculty, decided to postpone until the fall, when it hopes to be able to accommodate up to 2,500 guests and graduates of the classes of 2020 and 2021.

"We’re primarily a performing arts institution, and our commencements are primarily a performance" with music, theater and films, said the college’s president, David Cohen. "It’s really an event … and we didn’t feel we could do that remotely or with limited participation."

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