For years, seniors imagined their picturesque Commencement in May, celebrating alongside their classmates in a culmination of four years of hard work.
After Penn originally announced Monday it would hold a virtual Commencement in May in lieu of a traditional ceremony, some seniors launched a viral petition to persuade the university to change its decision.
Gutmann sent another email the following day to all undergraduate students restating that Commencement will take place virtually on May 18 and committing that the University will hold on-campus ceremonies when they deem it "safe and feasible to do so."
"Life-altering global events that affect all of us have taken away something that is uniquely yours: your final semester on campus, surrounded by friends and faculty, enjoying all of the accomplishments, milestones, and traditions that you have gone to such lengths to earn and enjoy," Gutmann wrote. "That is a special—and an especially difficult—loss."
In response to moving Commencement online, seniors urged the administration to reconsider their decision and reschedule Commencement ceremony to a later date.
College senior Emma Loving started a petition calling for Commencement to be postponed, instead of the online event proposed by the university. At the time of publication, it had over 7,000 signatures.
Loving said a virtual graduation ceremony should have been "an absolute last resort."
"I instantly thought of that moment when we were all gonna toss our caps, I thought about all the [first-generation low-income] students who wouldn’t get to post [photos with] their families with their diplomas, those kinds of moments that Commencement brings everyone together,” Loving said. "So my first reaction was: we can’t accept this. We, as a student body, need to come together and do something about it and take action."
Engineering senior Lauren Hummel said although she understands the implausibility of holding commencement per usual given health risks, she believes a virtual experience is not the best solution.
"Everybody who got into this University and came to this University three and a half years ago came here with hopes and aspirations of walking across the stage, shaking the dean's hand, and seeing their family and friends being proud of this moment," Hummel said. "We're just not getting that now, and it really hurts."
Instead of or in addition to a virtual commencement, Hummel suggested possibly hosting smaller celebrations at alumni hubs around the country.
Wharton and College senior Arman Ramezani wrote a letter signed by 40 of his classmates, urging Gutmann and Provost Wendell Pritchett to work with students to organize an in-person event for graduates sometime in the coming fall.
Undergraduate Assembly President and College senior Natasha Menon, as well as Senior Class Board President and Engineering and Wharton senior Karim El Sewedy were among those who signed the letter.
Ramezani, a former member of student government who previously worked regularly with Gutmann and Pritchett, believes the University has students' best interest in mind — but said that due to a lack of communication, Penn often doesn't know how to best serve them.
"Sometimes there isn't a real direct line of communication between students and administrators, so it can be hard for administrators to exactly know how we feel," Ramezarni said. "You know, the president and provost don't read our GroupMes and group chats when we complain about something about Penn."
Other seniors also took issue with the University's apparent lack of communication with students when making decisions about Commencement.
College senior Natalia Lindsey felt that students were blindsided by the announcement and should have been consulted more before action was taken.
"Making that definitive statement just didn't feel super inclusive of the student perspective, given that Commencement is a time to celebrate student achievements," Lindsey said.
College senior Dezalyn Carrasquillo said being denied an in-person Commencement has been especially difficult for FGLI students and students of color. Carrasquillo explains that being able to see the diversity of the senior class during a physical ceremony is of great personal and community importance for marginalized groups.
"We come from different backgrounds, we come from different areas, and we come from different situations," Carrasquillo said. "Being able to be in that one place together, despite that adversity we've faced, and being able to graduate is a really power thing that is going to be taken away."
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