In virtual graduations, colleges get creative to honor graduates

Robot surrogates, Minecraft simulations and other forms of digital celebration are replacing traditional ceremonies. Participants say it's not the same, but it's what's available.
Blockeley University
A team of students at University of California, Berkeley, recreated the university's campus inside of the popular video game Minecraft. (Blockeley University)

Although graduating seniors won’t participate in the traditional pomp and circumstance of an in-person graduation, colleges have redesigned their commencement ceremonies to gives students a memorable and personalized experience virtually.

Graduation celebrations at colleges across the country are taking place online this semester to keep students and their families safe during the pandemic. And while graduates won’t get to walk across a stage or have thousands of attendees cheer for their accomplishment, colleges have taken some creative approaches to celebrate graduates from a distance, using robots to receive diplomas, setting up virtual backdrops for photos and delivering personalized messages from friends and family to graduates.

“We’re quite aware of the fact that this won’t replace the in-person event, but we wanted to have a way for students to be celebrated right now in the moment,” Melissa Werner, who has been in charge of graduation at Arizona State University for over 20 years, told EdScoop. “This is a milestone activity for graduates and their families.”

At ASU, students last week attended their graduation ceremony online, where they were congratulated by the university’s president and their peers with prerecorded speeches. Each of the 17,000 graduation students also got to hear their names called in a slideshow of graduates, accompanied by their photo and a personalized message from family or friends.


“Although it’s not the same experience, it’s something a little different and a little more personal,” Werner said.

Graduates of ASU’s School of Global Management even got to “walk” in a ceremony using robots that function as human surrogates, letting users see, hear and move about a location remotely with the humanoid device and lending students the chance to experience graduation in real time.

Across the country, many more colleges have redesigned graduation in creative ways to honor their students. At the University of California, Berkeley, A team of more than 100 students built a virtual “Blockeley University” using the popular video game Minecraft. Graduating students attend a virtual, mock commencement ceremony in an animated version of the university’s football stadium, complete with music, remarks by university chancellor Carol Christ, the conferring of degrees and flying mortarboards.

“Our priority, for the graduating class this year, was to provide a sense of closure, especially now that we’re in such a weird time that brought an abrupt end to senior year,” Bjorn Lustic, who invented Blockeley University, told his campus paper.

At the University of Southern California, graduates were celebrated in a virtual performance from the Trojan Marching Band and were surprised by comedian and USC alumnus Will Ferrell.


“I know it’s been a challenging semester, but you’ll have stories for the rest of your lives,” Ferrell said.

Colleges have had to redesign these graduation ceremonies in a matter of weeks. And although there are many students and families who have expressed disappointment at missing out on such an important milestone, college staff and administrators have risen to the challenge to find a way to honor students who have worked hard for their degrees, Werner said.

“It is not going to be what people had planned for. It’s not what we had planned for,” she said. “But we’re here now and we really hope that our students will come back in the fall and next spring so that we can still move forward and give them that experience, give them that moment. Not in the very instance when they should have had it, but we still want them to have that experience and that excitement of graduating.”

Betsy Foresman

Written by Betsy Foresman

Betsy Foresman was an education reporter for EdScoop from 2018 through early 2021, where she wrote about the virtues and challenges of innovative technology solutions used in higher education and K-12 spaces. Foresman also covered local government IT for StateScoop, on occasion. Foresman graduated from Texas Christian University in 2018 — go Frogs! — with a BA in journalism and psychology. During her senior year, she worked as an intern at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and moved back to the capital after completing her degree because, like Shrek, she feels most at home in the swamp. Foresman previously worked at Scoop News Group as an editorial fellow.

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