As the spread of the coronavirus continues to keep businesses and schools closed, colleges in central Maine are deciding what they will do for seniors or other final-year students who are no longer attending classes on campus.

A look at what those colleges are planning for online and in-person commencement exercises:

UNIVERSITY OF MAINE AT AUGUSTA

The University of Maine at Augusta initially considered a virtual commencement event for May 9. Ultimately, after seeking feedback from students, the college opted for an in-person ceremony Oct. 3.

“Our graduates had voiced a desire to have a traditional commencement at a later date when it could be held in person,” said Domna Giatas, UMA’s executive director of planning and communications.

Jessica Blake waves to the audience May 11, 2019, while she marches into the University of Maine at Augusta commencement ceremony at the Augusta Civic Center. Kennebec Journal file photo by Joe Phelan

“A survey of those graduating confirmed this and we have honored the students wishes by postponing the 2020 Commencement to Oct. 3, provided this is in compliance with CDC and state guidelines.”

While UMA’s in-person commencement will not take place until next fall, there will be a virtual celebration in May. Graduates will be able to share their stories, and offer thanks and inspirations for the future, Giatas said, through videos, selfies and photos.

“To take part, all 2020 graduates will be invited to complete a form which will create a personalized celebration page,” she said. “This page will be posted on uma.edu/2020grads as part of a slideshow, and also shared on UMA social media.

“Additionally, students will receive a version of their celebration page as a digital keepsake to share with their friends and family through their own personal social media. A message requesting students to participate in the virtual celebration was just sent out today, so we anticipate having celebration pages available for posting and viewing at the beginning of next week.”

UNITY COLLEGE

At Unity College, which made the decision to cancel all on-campus classes during spring break, President Melik Khoury said a summer commencement has been tentatively scheduled for Aug. 1, substituting for the previously planned May 9 ceremony.

The college, which has residential students and distance education students, typically holds commencement ceremonies in May and December.

“Adding the commencement ceremony in August gives our seniors the opportunity to march in August or December, so those that really want to come still have options,” Khoury said.

Unity College graduate Sue Dube battles with the wind to keep her mortarboard on her head before the college’s commencement ceremony May 11, 2019, in Unity. Morning Sentinel file photo by Michael G. Seamans

“Whether it’s distance education alma mater that want to visit the campus for the first time or flagship students, this is a big deal for a lot of families. We have a lot of first generation students, and there’s a lot of pride in the work that they’ve done.”

Khoury said Unity has about 850 students, split between distance education and residential students. Of those, about 200 are graduating seniors.

Khoury said families will be notified well before the Aug. 1 commencement if plans need be changed, possibly due to recommendations or restrictions from state government or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.

“The call will be made 45 days in advance,” he said. “About 70% of our student population comes from out of state and, as a result, it’s not as simple for families to drive up.”

Unity College, however, has made a commitment that if the August commencement were canceled, students will have the opportunity to march at the Dec. 18 commencement.

About five years ago, Unity College invested in distance learning technology to which all students have access and use. Through online platforms, students can submit coursework and receive grading.

Khoury said when the decision was made to close campus temporarily, the faculty, with the assistance of instructional designers, pulled together during spring break to shift their courses so they could be taught entirely online for the remaining five weeks of the semester. Distance education students were not affected by the campus closure.

“Because we are not on campus, we took staff members that would normally be supporting (students) on campus and we designated them as staff liaisons,” Khoury said.

“Our wellness center is continuing to support our kids with activities and counseling, and we were also able to put all of our academic support systems online, such as tutoring.”

THOMAS COLLEGE

At Thomas College, the annual honors convocation and commencement dinner for students and families have been put on hold.

Provost Thomas Edwards said in an email the college intends to schedule its commencement ceremony — set originally for May 9 — for this fall, “perhaps to coincide with a convocation or a family weekend event,” where students can be welcomed back to campus and receive recognition for their academic achievements.

Thomas College graduates march May 11, 2019, into the Alfond Athletic Center at Thomas College. Morning Sentinel file photo by Michael G. Seamans

“The exact nature and timing of that event will depend on the evolution of the current health crisis,” Edwards said. “Thomas also is finalizing plans for a way to celebrate students remotely this spring and will be announcing those plans to graduating students in the very near future.”

While students work to complete their courses online, Edwards said information technology was provided to everyone on campus and the college’s student “success staff” has been working to connect and engage with students to help with the shift.

Student affairs has also created a variety of online activities, such as bingo, yoga, intramurals and coffee hours to keep students engaged with one another. Online tutoring, academic support and counseling are also available to students.

“A key to any academic community is how do we blend learning and community,” Edwards said. “Both are essential to the very definition of a college.

“Moving to remote learning has stretched, but not broken the bonds that make Thomas a special place. And in the process, it has taught us what a special gift these relationships are — the faculty, staff and students who make Thomas what it is.”

COLBY COLLEGE

At Colby College in Waterville, traditional graduation events include a baccalaureate ceremony at Lorimer Chapel and a lobster bake, concerts and commencement balls to celebrate graduating seniors.

While the college has deemed it unsafe to hold such events anytime soon, including its graduation ceremony scheduled for May 24, officials are working to identify an appropriate time to hold commencement exercises and the many related events.

“I want you to know that I am not going to let your commencement be anything but the celebration you have earned,” President David Greene told seniors.

Colby College graduates toss their caps into the air at the conclusion of the 198th Colby commencement May 26, 2019, in Waterville. Morning Sentinel file photo

“I can’t do as much as I would like about the state of the world right now or the need to postpone your graduation exercises, but I can make sure that we’ll find an exciting way forward and that when we reconvene we’ll make the most of it.”

Added Greene: “The members of the Class of 2020 and the families and friends who have supported them deserve nothing less. I also hope that you will remember the commencement — as the name suggests — is not the end of your time here. It is just a new and wonderful beginning. We will always be here for you.”

As it considers a rescheduled graduation for the Class of 2020, Colby is eyeing the end of the summer, although it is not clear if traveling at that time will be safe. Dates in 2021 are also being discussed, possibly to coincide with first-year reunions.

Since shifting to online learning, faculty and advisers at Colby have been working closely with students, according to college officials.

Colby has also revised its grading policy for the semester to provide students flexibility and choices, including having the option to receive traditional letter grades or receive grades of “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.