New petition pushes for in-person commencement


Hongyu Liu

People walking by the Agganis Arena.

By Dana Gerber and Frankie Rowley

Hundreds of graduating seniors are petitioning the college to reconsider its decision to cancel in-person commencement, originally set to take place in May. 

A petition emerged on March 17, urging the college to reassess holding some form of an in-person ceremony. Alternative suggestions including holding the ceremony in an outdoor venue, department-specific ceremonies, enforcing limits on guests per student, a hybrid in-person and virtual ceremony, or pushing an in-person event to a later date. 

The petition, which amassed nearly 400 signatures in six days, cites other college’s in-person ceremony plans, Massachusetts’ reopening progress, and the progress of vaccine rollout as key reasons Emerson should reconsider its decision. 

A May 9 virtual commencement for the class of 2021 was announced in early February, marking Emerson as one of the first in the Boston area to solidify plans. Emerson plans to hold “additional activities” for the class of 2020, whose commencement weekend was held online while college officials explored plans for an in-person ceremony in the fall, which was later postponed in July.  

“Commencement is a very special and important tradition not only to signify such a huge milestone but also to celebrate the incredible accomplishment,” the petition, created by senior visual and media arts major Camila Melo, said. “There are thoughtful and safe in-person alternatives to the impersonal virtual ceremony currently proposed.”

The petition noted that the decision, made months before the ceremony, was “a bit premature,” and an iteration of an in-person ceremony is achievable through the same means as hybrid learning: social distancing, COVID testing, and masking. 

Melo, an international student from the Dominican Republic, said graduation was supposed to be an important personal milestone for her and her family.  

“My parents worked so hard for me to come to the U.S. and get an international degree here, and graduation was supposed to celebrate all that,” Melo said in an interview with The Beacon. “To see how Emerson disregards that is very disappointing.” 

Vice President and Dean for Campus Life Jim Hoppe said switching to an in-person ceremony at this point is highly unlikely due to the long-term planning of an event of that size. He said Emerson’s city-owned sports complex, Rotch Field, is unable to fit the graduating class—usually about 900 students—with state-mandated distancing requirements. 

“There [were] a lot of requests for the college just to make a decision so people could plan,” Hoppe said. 

In a March 10 email obtained by The Beacon from Director of Commencement Vicky Peterson, wrote that a “predictably safe” in-person ceremony was impossible this May, but smaller events could be possible.

“We understand the importance of this milestone to students and families and will continue to explore ways to supplement the online ceremony with smaller informal gatherings as the weather warms and restrictions ease,” she wrote.  

Peterson did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

“With the amount of money that we all pay to go to Emerson, I think, if they wanted to, they could work their way around it,” Melo said. “At the beginning, I was fine with having a virtual graduation, because at the end of the day, it’s a year COVID, everyone’s dying … but then, to see how Emerson didn’t even consider the option of giving us an in person graduation was really frustrating.” 

Commencement is typically held at Boston University’s Agganis Arena—as of March 22, under Phase Four Step One of Massachusetts’ reopening, indoor and outdoor arenas are allowed to reopen at 12 percent capacity, which for Agganis would be just over 850 attendees. 

Many local colleges are planning in-person ceremonies. Northeastern plans to split their graduating class in half and hold two ceremonies, both at Fenway Park. Boston University plans to restrict attendance for a ceremony at its Nickerson Field to graduates and a small number of college officials. Suffolk University pushed back the date of commencement to accommodate in-person ceremonies split up by school, also at Fenway Park. 

Senior writing, literature, and publishing major Kayla Randolph said she plans to watch the virtual ceremony with her mom and brother, who she lives with, and FaceTime with other relatives. She also ordered a tassel and a “Class of 2021 mask” to celebrate.

“What a way to commemorate and remember,” Randolph said. “Because there’s less of the ceremony—no cap and gown, no dramatic pictures—it’s not an event. It’s not my parents coming to Boston. So I think [my mom is] bummed out, but I think she’s also really trying to help me look forward to it as still something to be proud of.” 

Randolph said she would be happy to participate in a joint in-person commencement for the classes of 2020, 2021, and 2022 whenever one is feasible.

“That also is helping me get through this, just looking forward to that possible celebration in the future,” she said. 
Sophia Speciale, a senior visual and media arts major, said she was eagerly anticipating the opportunity to see relatives she doesn’t often gather with. 

“It was going to be a reunion of sorts,” she said. “My family is going to plan a trip, a celebration for me, after we’re all vaccinated and the world is beginning to start opening. I’m really looking forward to that. I also plan on meeting up with my friends in Boston in April, just to reunite and celebrate.”