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Class Board 2021 president Lizzie Youshaei carrying the Class of 2021 flag during Convocation 2019.

Credit: Chase Sutton

As Penn prepares to enter its third semester under the cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year's seniors are wondering if they will face the same fate of the Class of 2020 and see their long-awaited Commencement ceremony canceled. 

Last spring, after Penn suddenly closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 Commencement ceremony was moved online. Penn then announced that it would hold an in-person ceremony for the Class of 2020 on May 22 and 23, right after the ceremony for the Class of 2021 on May 17. As coronavirus cases continue to rise precipitously across the country, however, seniors are beginning to worry if the traditional ceremonies will be safe or feasible come May.

Wharton senior and Class Board 2021 president Lizzie Youshaei said that while she remains hopeful that in-person graduation will happen this year, she recognizes that she may just be “overly optimistic.”

“But I believe we will be back, and I think it might be socially distant. It might be students coming in waves. It might be students getting tested, no adults, like, no parents or grandparents allowed,” she said. “I really couldn't imagine a world where we don't, but also I couldn't imagine a world last year where we didn't have a day at this point.”

If Commencement does not happen this May, Youshaei thinks that Penn would not have a normal ceremony for the Class of 2020 the following year, but would instead hold a different event along the lines of a smaller, reception-like event to celebrate the class. 

“When the 2020 commencement got canceled,  it was very fresh, and they were the only class going through that at the time," she said. "By next year, two years are already going to have passed since they were supposed to graduate, so I'm curious how many students would really come back to campus to walk."

Several Penn administrators declined to comment on whether the University would be going ahead with spring Commencement plans.

College senior and UA President Mercedes Owens said that the likelihood of an in-person Commencement this year depends on the number of COVID-19 cases both Philadelphia and on campus. 

“I think it's gonna depend on how the winter goes and if the cases continue to spike, and then also looking in the spring, if the cases don't continue to spike and we do come back, then it's going to depend on if people are actually abiding by the [Student Campus] Compact,” she said. 

College senior Rachel Perlstein agreed with Youshaei and said she thinks that if Commencement were to get pushed back again, it would be different for the Class of 2020. 

“Pushing it back two years for [the Class of 2020] is a really long time, so maybe they would push it back another few months if there are more vaccines coming out to maybe around Convocation time, because trying to fit three years, or three graduation classes worth of commencement in one weekend period is just too much,” she said. 

Convocation traditionally happens in August and welcomes incoming students. The ceremony was held virtually this year as a result of the ongoing pandemic. 

Wharton senior Jake Milner thinks it would be difficult to replicate three different commencement ceremonies in May. 

“I think they would find something different for the Class of 2020, I don’t think they’re just going to forget them,” he said.

He, however, is still hopeful that Commencement will happen this year for 2020 and 2021 seniors. 

“I remember last year feeling terrible for the seniors when they lost the end of their senior year and didn't get to have in-person graduation, but thinking that things would be normal again by the fall. And obviously, that didn't happen," he said. “It's definitely sort of a beacon of hope to think that we might be able to graduate, but who knows if it's false optimism.”

Commencement is traditionally held on Franklin Field, but given social distancing guidelines, if it happens this year, it will undoubtedly look different.

“Given how the seats are usually set up, I feel like they'd probably have to take over part of the stands, and somehow find a way to enforce that social distancing. But I mean, having been at two graduation ceremonies already, I don't really know how feasible that is,” Milner said referencing that the Glee Club, where he serves as president, typically performs at the Commencement ceremony.

Although wary, Owens remains hopeful that Commencement will happen this year as long as everyone follows the Student Campus Compact.

“If we really want Commencement to happen to tell people to be really responsible and safe, if we're able to come back in the spring because I think that's going to be the deciding factor,” she said.

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