Brendan W. Clark ’21
A group of Trinity College seniors, led by Avery Stern ’20, Maggie O’Meara ’20, and Claire Hall-Tipping ’20, have drafted a petition urging for the College administration to reconsider postponing the Class of 2020 Commencement ceremony to the summer of 2021.
The petition, with 879 signatures at the time the article was published, requests a “summer/early fall 2020 graduation and a spring 2021 graduation as a last resort option.”
Citing decisions at other institutions to move to late summer or early fall, including Bucknell University, Lafayette University, University of California Berkeley, and the University of Virginia, the students argue that while they are “uncertain what the future holds,” the decision to postpone until after the 2021 academic year “disregards our efforts as a class, as they will be celebrated after another class has made their impact upon our school.”
The Tripod spoke with petition organizer Avery Stern ’20 who indicated that many students were “devastated we wouldn’t get to receive any closure before moving on to our next chapter” and feel that “attending a small liberal arts college gives us the opportunity to share our concerns and be recognized for them.”
Chief of Staff to the President Jason Rojas acknowledged that “members of the administration did receive an email this morning from the students organizing the petition.” Rojas added that while the College “completely understand[s] how these students and their supporters feel about commencement being postponed,” the decision was made in part because of the “significant uncertainty about what social distancing and travel restrictions will remain in place through the summer and into the fall.”
Stern argues that the students are “all very aware of the uncertainty that surrounds Covid-19 and we are not requesting to disregard the safety of our community and families.” Despite this, Stern believes the decision to postpone to next summer is premature, arguing that “a number of universities have agreed to monitor this pandemic and tentatively plan for a 2020 graduation ceremony.”
The decision to delay, added Rojas, was “among the most difficult that we have had to make over the past month” and he added that it is a “difficult situation for our college community and for college communities across the country.”
The petition has received support from students in the senior class as well as underclassmen and the alumni community. Stern indicated that the organizers have talked to “a number of alums” who have “shared their concerns and support” and added that while no organizations have endorsed the petition, they feel greatly supported by “many of the on-campus organizations” whose “members participated in the petition.”
Circulation of the petition in a number of class and alumni Facebook groups has generated mixed responses from seniors. One post shared by a member of the Class of 2020 expressed their belief that a summer or fall Commencement would raise serious health concerns, calling the petition “stupid.” In response, another senior added, “if people don’t agree, no need to sign it. It’s simple. Everyone is allowed to have their own opinion.”
President of the College Joanne Berger-Sweeney announced the decision to delay Commencement proceedings until “after the 2020-21 academic year” on Apr. 2. Berger-Sweeney indicated that the College will seek to offer the “excitement and customs of a traditional Commencement Weekend in 2021,” including an Honors Day Ceremony, Phi Beta Kappa Induction Ceremony, and post-Commencement celebrations.
The petition organizers and signatories are particularly concerned that they “will not be able to have our whole class in attendance due to the reality of our next chapter,” Stern added. Berger-Sweeney indicated in her Apr. 2 email that the College would develop strategies to “include graduates who may not be able to return to campus next year.” Stern also added that while the College may “reconstruct the traditional Senior Week…even if senior celebrations are offered very few people would be able to take time off to travel and attend.”
Rojas emphasized that part of the decision was around the provision of certainty, adding that is a “milestone event and we do not want to put families in the position of making travel and housing accommodations that might have changed.” Rojas continued, indicating that those changes would “likely result in significant emotional and financial costs for families.” Rojas also stressed that “a significant amount of planning and lead time goes into executing commencement.”
When Stern spoke with the Tripod Monday afternoon, she added that she has “yet to hear from” the administration regarding the petition, but said she was “looking forward to their response.” While Trinity’s Student Government Association (SGA) has not announced any statements around the petition, Stern stated that they “have certainly acknowledged it.”
The Tripod reached out to SGA Vice President for Communications Jack Stone ’22, who added that SGA is “so happy that students are actively engaging the decision-making process that the Administration has embarked on.” While declining to comment on any endorsement from SGA or the Senior Class Council, Stone added that he hopes the “energy which the petition represents will continue to propel student participation in these decision[sic].”
Berger-Sweeney stressed in her original email that an “environment of uncertainty” in part necessitated the postponement of Commencement. Stone, too, echoed these concerns, adding that he hopes all will bear “in mind the real health-related implications of the COVID crisis for vulnerable members of our community.”
Petition signatories have left reasons for signing, among them that “other colleges have just pushed theirs [sic] back to later dates in the summer,” “the seniors deserve graduation,” and that the “administration needs to do what the graduating students want.”
Other Connecticut institutions have demonstrated varying responses to 2020 Commencement exercises. Yale University in New Haven cancelled their ceremony on Mar. 25 and have not made specific plans for future events, though President Peter Salovey has indicated that Yale will be welcoming students “back to campus to celebrate your achievements when this crisis is behind us.” Wesleyan University has also not determined when to celebrate Commencement, with an Apr. 3 cancellation announcement indicating that the university will “celebrate the 2020 graduates at an in-person event at some point in the future.”
Connecticut College, conversely, has approached the issue similar to Trinity, delaying Commencement until May 30, 2021.
Rojas stated that Trinity has “engaged senior class leaders in a process for planning a rescheduled commencement” and expressed a willingness to “share the feedback we receive” with the petitioning students. A message to seniors on Apr. 9 also indicated that the Office of Student Activities, Involvement, and Leadership (SAIL) would be “looking to assemble a team that includes both the Senior Class Council and non-SGA members to plan Senior Week events for 2021.”
Trinity is also planning a “variety of ways to recognize and celebrate graduating students this spring, including a virtual baccalaureate ceremony,” Rojas added, noting that “more information on those plans will be shared soon.”