Occidental announces plans for in-person commencement for the Class of 2021

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Reese Walker/The Occidental

President Elam announced March 19 that the 2021 commencement ceremony will be in person, citing updated Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines regarding domestic travel and LA County’s move into the “orange tier” of COVID-19 severity as the main reasons for the change. The 2020 alumni reunion event will also be in person after the class of 2020 senior commencement was canceled last year due to the pandemic. This announcement was followed by another update April 8 that said the event would take place in Jack Kemp Stadium instead of the Greek Bowl, and students would be allowed to invite two guests.

Anabel Gullo (senior) said she was excited for the in-person commencement and further thrilled by the second update allowing students to bring guests.

“I was on the plane out to LA when I got the email that parents would be able to come,” Gullo said. “I immediately sent my mom a screenshot.”

According to Marty Sharkey, vice president of communications and institutional initiatives and co-lead of Occidental’s COVID Operations Group (COG), staff from multiple offices have been working to plan the event in coordination with public health guidelines. Sharkey said that due to high COVID case rates in LA earlier this year, it seemed for a time that live events would continue to be virtual.

“Of course we want students to have an in-person commencement,” Sharkey said. “We know from a student and parent perspective that students would want family members to be there, and obviously family members would want to attend; it’s just a question of what are the county guidelines.”

Ryu Frank (senior) said the news of an in-person commencement came as a shock. He said that after enduring such a tough year and battling bouts of low motivation, the president’s announcement made the end of school seem less bleak.

“It was a bit of a surprise, but a good one,” Frank said. “It is important for a lot of people and people’s families to be able to share this moment with everyone.”

In order to comply with LA County safety guidelines, the college plans to have the 2021 commencement ceremony at the Jack Kemp Stadium, instead of the Hillside Theater, according to Sharkey. Selah Wilson (senior) said she saw this change as somewhat of a disappointment.

“It’s a little bit sad because it’s tradition to have it in the Hillside Theater,” Wilson said. “But honestly, in-person graduation in Kemp Stadium is better than no in-person graduation at all.”

According to Sharkey, the college considered several factors before deciding to move the event’s location.

“Literally we had people taking measurements,” Sharkey said. “How far apart, how many rows of seats will we need. How will people get in and out so that they don’t bunch up, restroom access, disability access.”

A large event such as commencement normally requires an excess amount of planning and coordination, but Sharkey said navigating the added challenges brought on by the pandemic required an extra effort from staff.

“There are multiple key offices that are involved and we asked every one of them ‘Do you have the information that you need,’ you know, ‘Can we do this?'” Sharkey said. “We wanted to be really sure that we could execute it well before President Elam made [the] announcement.”

Marisa Emoto/The Occidental

Every year the Intercultural Community Center (ICC) hosts a series of cultural graduation ceremonies as part of the commencement festivities. According to ICC director Chris Arguedas, these ceremonies are meant to be celebrations for seniors that are rooted in their lived experience, which they can share with peers who identify in similar ways.

In the past, the ICC has offered seven ceremonies — Asian Pacific Islander Graduation, Black Graduation, First Generation Graduation, Indigenous Graduation, Latinx Graduation, Lavender Graduation and Multi Graduation — and this year, Arguedas said they are excited to add a Middle East and North Africa (MENA) graduation.

According to Arguedas, the ceremony was made possible largely due to student efforts and will become a permanent part of future cultural graduation ceremonies.

Wilson said she looks forward to attending the virtual Black Graduation, a celebration for African-American and Black identifying students.

Wilson said another part of graduation she is excited for is singing as part of Glee Club. The club is taking extra safety precautions in order to perform at commencement and it will be the first time many of the singers get to see each other in person, according to Wilson.

Both Frank and Gullo said they were also looking forward to reuniting with friends.

“That will be the most exciting part,” Frank said. “Just being able to have this big moment and share it with a lot of these people who I haven’t really been able to hang out with during the pandemic.”

Sharkey said that he and other staff in the president’s office are excited to be able to give seniors a semi-normal graduation experience. President Harry J. Elam Jr. said he could not be happier about commencement and is eager for the in-person event.

“I am so excited to see the reactions from students and families on that day. In fact, this will be the first time I’ll be able to meet the Class of 2021 in person!” Elam said via email. “Our seniors have been through so much this year. I think there will be a palpable feeling of joy throughout the campus on May 16.”