As students at Slippery Rock University prepare for finals week to close out another semester during the COVID-19 pandemic, those graduating will be the first in over a year to walk at graduation in person.
More than 1,700 SRU students from the university’s four colleges and three doctoral programs will take to the Mihalik-Thompson Stadium on April 30 and May 1 to participate in most of the traditions that come with commencement. Along with having their names read and walking the stage to receive diploma covers, graduates will participate in singing the SRU alma mater and the moving of the tassel, according to an email sent out to students on March 24.
In a ceremony which usually brings many friends and family to The Rock to celebrate the momentous occasion, graduates will be limited to two guests. There was hope that the situation and subsequent guidelines from the Commonwealth regarding the COVID-19 pandemic would allow students to invite more guests, but that will not be possible, according to Robert King, chief communication and public affairs officer.
Along with limited guests, the number of speakers on stage will be reduced as well. SRU President William Behre and Provost Abbey Zink will take to the stage with representatives from the Council of Trustees and Alumni Association and the dean of the college being honored at that time. No one from the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) will be in attendance, King said.
Having an in-person commencement is something many graduating seniors, including Hannah Runas, have wanted to see happen. Runas started a petition in January on change.org, asking the president and administrators to find a way to scrap the virtual formats spring and fall 2020 graduates received.
“We, and our parents, are more than willing to follow any guidelines deemed necessary to attend a live graduation in the safest way possible,” Runas said in her petition that received more than 1,100 signatures. “We would rather sit in the rain at the stadium than receive our diplomas via Zoom.”
While Runas, a special education transition program major, has signed petitions before, she had never authored one. When she posted the petition and sent it off to university officials, she hoped to get 200-400 signatures. She said reaching more than 1,100 was overwhelming.
Even though the administration never reached out to Runas to discuss her petition or their commencement plans, seeing what the university decided to do shows they listened to the students about what they want, Runas said.
“I know it is still going to look different than the past few years, by just having that opportunity to be able to go to an in-person commencement and walk and have at least two people there to support you, that’s all I hoped for,” Runas said. “So, I am comfortable and happy with what was able to happen.”
Getting to a place where an in-person ceremony was possible took a lot by the community, King said. Low positive COVID-19 cases on campus – less than 0.05% this spring – and compliance by the student body about safety measures like masks and social distancing were the most significant factors, King said.
With a lowering number of cases in Slippery Rock and across the state, Gov. Tom Wolf increased gathering limits for indoor and outdoor events on April 4. Those changes have rippled through the campus to not only allow the upcoming graduating ceremony but other familiar sights like fans at ball games clubs holding events such as movie nights.
SRU will hosts graduates by college at the following times:
- Graduate Studies, 6 p.m., Friday, April 30;
- College of Education, 9 a.m., Saturday, May 1.;
- College of Business, Noon, Saturday, May 1;
- College of Liberal Arts, 3 p.m., Saturday, May 1;
- College of Health, Engineering and Science, 6 p.m., Saturday, May 1.
SRU’s spring and fall 2020 graduates, who had virtual commencements last year, will be honored during the university’s Homecoming Weekend from Oct. 15 to 17. Plans for what that celebration will look like have yet to be decided, according to King. He said the university is entirely focused on giving students the upcoming in-person graduation.