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Graduating students react to cancellation of Final Exercises as planned

For first-generation college graduates, the opportunity to walk the Lawn holds a special significance

During Final Exercises, the graduating classes lines up around the Rotunda for a procession down the Lawn.
During Final Exercises, the graduating classes lines up around the Rotunda for a procession down the Lawn.

On March 17, University President Jim Ryan and Provost Liz Magill informed the student body of a number of changes to the University’s operational schedule in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Among these changes was the cancellation of Final Exercises as originally planned for May 16 and 17. 

Fourth-year Batten student Hannah Semmes was looking forward to walking down the Lawn with her classmates and family in attendance — but like many others, was deeply saddened when she heard the coveted graduation tradition may not occur.

“For the last seven months, we have balked at anyone with the audacity to ask how we feel about graduating this spring,” Semmes said. “It was bitter, but it was bittersweet … Graduating isn’t easy, but not graduating is even harder.”

During Final Exercises, the graduating class — composed of both undergraduate and graduate students — line up around the Rotunda for a procession down the Lawn. The graduates then take their seats facing away from the Rotunda to symbolize their entrance into the world beyond the University. Following Final Exercises, school and department-specific graduation ceremonies are held in which individual students are recognized. This is the first time that Final Exercises will not be held as planned since 1829, when the tradition began. 

Ryan and Magill anticipated a sense of sadness from students after informing them of the University’s decision. 

“We do not make this decision lightly, as we know how disappointing it will be to graduating students and their families,” Ryan and Magill said. “That said, a team is already focused on developing creative alternatives to mark this important occasion, and we will communicate updates as we have them.”

For members of the Class of 2020 who are first-generation college graduates, the opportunity to walk the Lawn holds a special significance. 

“For a first-generation, low-income college student, receiving ‘the honors of Honor’ and graduating from the University of Virginia is the culmination of four years of hardship and resilience,” said Brian Zuluaga, a fourth-year Batten student who is the first in his family to attend college. “We persisted. We made it.” 

Zuluaga noted the familial spirit behind many first-generation, low-income students' experience attending college.

“I am thinking about our parents,” Zuluaga said. “Our parents who have waited longer than four years for us to graduate from college. For me personally, I know that before I was even born my parents were hoping and praying for me to walk in a cap and gown in my early 20s. You see, graduation for an FGLI student is not an individual achievement, it is a family one.”

The email from President Ryan and Provost Magill did not include any additional information regarding the specifics of possible alternatives or when these students and their families should plan to hear from the University again with an update. Many students and families misinterpreted this initial statement thinking that there was no possibility of having Final Exercises on the Lawn at any point. 

Ryan clarified his announcement in a social media post Wednesday. 

“To be clear, one of those alternatives is holding Final Exercises at a later date,” the post stated. “Our apologies for not making this clear and for the confusion we caused.” 

The Centers for Disease Control, White House and Commonwealth have encouraged social distancing and restrictions on large gatherings to curb the spread of COVID-19. Final Exercises typically draws tens of thousands of individuals — parents, guests and faculty members — in celebration of the graduating class. 

Cristina von Bargen, a graduating member of the University’s Class of 1986, noted the necessity of this decision in light of the global pandemic.

“No one wants to deny the Class of 2020 its graduation but it must, first and foremost, be a gathering where students, family and faculty can come together safely,” von Bargen said. “Postponing the commencement exercises is the responsible and prudent decision — as painful as it is. The time to celebrate will come.”

Shortly after Ryan and Magill’s initial email to the University community, students created a petition to reschedule Final Exercises rather than seek an entirely different alternative.

“Walking The Lawn with our classmates to wear the Honors of Honor is something we have toiled for, tirelessly,” the petition reads. “We desire to postpone the 2020 Final Exercises to a later date so that we can have the same celebratory Final Exercises as the classes that have gone before us.” 

Over 6,200 individuals have signed the petition as of March 25.

“I think a lot of us are hopeful for a postponement of Final Exercises,” Zuluaga said. “As a first-generation college student himself, I trust President Ryan to make a conscientious decision for the Class of 2020.”

Fourth-year College student Alexa Scully lamented the current state of events but expressed an optimistic perspective. 

“At first, I was distraught and couldn’t stop thinking about all of the missed traditions, celebrations and what-ifs, but I’m coping with it by trying to put it in perspective,” Scully said. “A lot of people are being affected by the coronavirus in far worse ways, so I’m just grateful for the time I had and know we’ll make up for it.”

Claire Johnston, who graduated from the University in 1987 with a major in History, said that Final Exercises was one of her favorite traditions at the University.

“It’s the most iconic part of U.Va. It’s such an incredible thing to do ... walk down the Lawn at graduation,” Johnston said. “I think they should have a graduation ceremony prior to next year’s class graduating. It’s so sad to think about not having that opportunity.”

Semmes hopes the University will consider holding Final Exercises in August — should the global health crisis permit it — or next Thanksgiving when many families are at home together or in place of the Young Alumni Reunion in the fall semester.

At this time it is unclear when graduating students and their families should expect an update from the University regarding any alternative options for Final Exercises, including a postponement or specifics on another “creative alternative.”