Stony Brook University is moving its May 22 Spring Commencement online, according to an April 2 email from Interim President Michael Bernstein.
The decision, which follows guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office, was made in an effort to continue to contain the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19).
“I assure you all appropriately completed degrees will be conferred as scheduled – and, as needed, information will be forwarded to professional licensing bodies,” Bernstein wrote in the email. “You should expect receipt of your formal diplomas within two months of your graduation date.”
Faculty, staff and students — including the Undergraduate Student Government (USG) and Graduate Student Organization (GSO) — are working on alternatives for the commencement ceremony as well, according to the email.
The decision, however, was met with outrage from students. A petition to postpone the ceremony gained more than 1,000 signatures in a day.
“For us Senior students graduating this Spring, we all have been waiting for this special Commencement of our Class,” the petition read. “We understand that conducting commencement in May is not possible, however, we do not want a virtual commencement to be held. We are asking if Stony Brook University could postpone the graduation until August, or during summer when the pandemic has stopped.”
Sharon Joyce, a senior health science major who signed the petition, said that she was “really angry” that commencement was moved online without rescheduling it for a later date.
“It was like a slap in the face that they took our money for four years and can’t even make an effort to tell us that they plan on rescheduling it,” she said.
Joyce, who is the first in her family to graduate from college, said that this ceremony is something she and her family has looked forward to her entire life.
“It’s like they didn’t even care and showed no sympathy on the importance that a graduation [ceremony] has on not only students but to their families as well,” she said.
Michelle Najera, another senior health science major who signed the petition, has similar sentiments.
“I thought I would get to show my family what I’ve been working toward the past four years,” she said. “Now that it’s going to be held virtual, it almost feels like a slap in the face. I’m picturing myself in my cap and gown in my living room on Zoom for commencement and hating everything about that idea.”
Najera is the first in her family to attend college and has wanted to attend Stony Brook University since her freshman year of high school. Since then, she has spent “countless hours” studying, and many “all-nighters” in the library.
“I understand that what’s going on in the world is so much more important than a graduation ceremony, but that doesn’t make it fair for the Class of 2020,” she said. “What would be fair is if it were postponed to give us the chance to walk across that stage and experience that sense of accomplishment that previous classes did.”
Senior atmospheric science major, Justin Bettenhauser, argued that State University of New York (SUNY) Chancellor Kristina Johnson “promised” seniors would get to walk across the stage.
“I was never a fan of virtual graduation because it takes away the true sentimental value,” Bettenhauser, who signed the petition, said. “Graduation gives us seniors a chance to celebrate with friends and family. With the situation right now, we cannot do that. I would’ve been better if they rescheduled for the summer since the SUNY Chancellor promised the seniors that they would walk.”
Johnson wrote in a March 19 letter to SUNY students that the state system would reschedule commencement if necessary, “to make sure [seniors] walk across the stage and we proudly celebrate your accomplishments.”
A survey on commencement posted by USG Senior Class Senator Yusra Abdurrob in the Class of 2020 Facebook group found that 97% out of 155 respondents want the ceremony to be postponed.
Joyce said she hopes that the university at least tries to reschedule an in-person ceremony.
“Even if the rescheduling doesn’t work out in the future, at least we knew that they tried to give us a graduation,” she said.
Several SUNY schools are planning virtual celebrations, according to SUNY Senior Vice Chancellor and Provost, Tod Laursen. Some others are hoping to reschedule commencements for the fall or combine commencements with future classes, he said during a virtual town hall on April 2.
“Some incidentally are planning both,” he added. “They realize that to do something in the short term, it’s obviously important to the students so they can get their degrees, and yet to have the appropriate opportunity at a later date to celebrate together to invite students’ families when it’s safe to do so.”
SUNY Oneonta moved its commencement to August 29. SUNY Cortland, University at Albany and SUNY New Paltz, among others, postponed their commencements to dates that have yet to be determined.
SUNY Geneseo canceled its commencement, and is looking for “creative and alternative ways” to celebrate “at a later date.”
Bernstein addressed the graduating seniors in the Stony Brook email.
“I am very sorry that your final semester at Stony Brook has been derailed by this tragic public health crisis,” Bernstein wrote. “I want to thank all of you who in so many ways have supported our community as we confront this unprecedented emergency. It’s that very spirit for which your class — the Class of 2020 — will always be uniquely known.”
Gabby Pardo and Sherin Samuel contributed reporting.