FARMINGTON — The 186 graduates from the University of Maine at Farmington (UMF) 2021 class dispersed across town last Saturday, April  24, in full caps and gowns with proud and relieved smiles covered up by masks. The soon-to-be graduates had gathered at the university campus to record their socially distanced, diploma procession line which will be aired during UMF’s virtual commencement ceremony on May 8.

Class of 2021 University of Maine at Farmington graduates line up in a procession for a recorded video of their commencement that will be played during a virtual ceremony on May 8. Photo Courtesy of Kyra Zabel

This is the second virtual graduation ceremony hosted by UMF which is required to follow the University of Maine System’s policy in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Students gathered in groups at the campus Dearborn Gym and were organized alphabetically. Remaining socially-distanced, groups of 10 were led through the Emery Arts Center to the sound of bagpipes and brought to the Nordica Auditorium where President Serna handed out diplomas on stage.

“I don’t know how else to explain it other than it felt weird,” graduate Samantha Wood said, during a Zoom interview.

Wood has been gathering student feedback to the university’s approach for graduation over several months now, and she initiated a petition in February to push for students to be included in the planning process. The petition received more than 400 signatures with support from the graduating class, lower classes and the class of 2020.

“We shouldn’t have to ask for a seat at the table when you’re one of the biggest stakeholders,” Wood said.

The pushback to the university’s graduation plans was due to the fact that students felt left out of the decision-making process, Wood said. She iterated that students understand planning is extremely difficult during the pandemic but felt as though the February announcement and following announcements have lacked transparency and do not consider student schedules.

2021 graduate Kyra Zabel explained that many of the graduation ceremony plans have been sporadic and are often released via Facebook comments which are easy to miss.

“The information we have been getting about UMF’s graduation plans are sparse, somewhat performative, and SUPER late,” Zabel wrote in an email. “They’re giving us an opportunity to record tassel flipping ceremonies via Zoom, which is definitely super nice of them, but anytime we’ve been given information about the meetings for them, it’s been really close to the date of the event.

“They’ve also all taken place either during finals prep weeks or actual finals week, which, obviously, is a time when graduating seniors don’t have enough time in the day to do our required work, let alone extra events (it just doesn’t feel super thought through),” she wrote.

Wood explained that last weekend’s recorded procession left students with mixed reactions. Some were confused why the recording took place before finals as many wanted to feel as though they were truly graduated when receiving their diplomas.

Others told Wood that they were glad to at least be getting something during the pandemic.

“Honestly, this graduation has sort of been all over the place in terms of success.  There are times when I feel it is being handled fairly well, I truly enjoyed the ceremony we were given on April 24th,” Zabel wrote.

Class of 2021 graduates Kyra Zabel, left, and Samantha Wood, right, pose in their caps and gowns next to a COVID-19 social distancing and mask-wearing sign on the University of Maine at Farmington campus in Farmington. Photo Courtesy of Kyra Zabel

Others told Wood that they were unimpressed by the fact that the graduation would essentially consist of a slide show. Nonetheless, Wood said that she was glad to see the UMaine system take a responsible stance and not offer an in-person ceremony.

On Saturday, May 8, UMF will air the recorded procession for the public at 10:30 a.m. on the UMF website and on YouTube. Links can be found at https://www.umf.maine.edu/commencement-2021/. The ceremony will also have live elements to it with UMF Professor Emeritus of English Daniel Gunn providing a speech for the class of 2021.

“I’m honored to have the opportunity to speak to these students, many of whom I know well, and all of whom I admire for their courage and resilience under very difficult circumstances during the past year,” Gunn said in a UMF press release.

Creative Writing and English major and 2021 graduate Billie Rose Newby will provide the student address.

“This has been an extraordinary year, but our class is an extraordinary class,” Newby said in a UMF press release. “We have done our best to rise to the occasion with every challenge, to come together, make a difference, and now to celebrate our success. I couldn’t be prouder.”

UMF is still planning in-person celebrations for both the class of 2020 and 2021 to take place next year.

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