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Virtual Graduations and A Really Bad Job Market: College in 2020

Dr. Cynthia Jackson-Hammond, president of Central State University, welcomed Central State's Class of 2020 to its online commencement.
Central State University's Facebook Page
Dr. Cynthia Jackson-Hammond, president of Central State University, welcomed Central State's Class of 2020 to its online commencement.

Over the weekend, some Miami Valley colleges held virtual commencements before sending their new graduates out into the world — and one of the toughest job markets in memory.

Central State University is a historically black university, and commencements can be a big deal for graduates who have worked hard to get to where they are.

With COVID-19 shutting down large gatherings across the state, this year’s celebration was almost canceled entirely. But, this past Saturday, Central State held its very first virtual graduation.

Senior Class President Asia Hays says it nearly didn’t happen because her classmates were opposed to the idea when it was first announced.

“They felt like our school was kind of disrespecting them,” she says, “but I started understanding that it was the only thing we could do.”

Hays says the biggest disappointment for the students is that Central State won’t commit to a physical graduation in the future. With an active pandemic and a new university president taking office in July, the university told her they couldn’t make assurances.

So, for now, the class of 2020 is making the best of what they have with Zoom watch parties and relatives driving by their houses, beeping horns and holding up signs.

“I worked hard this last week to include personal videos from each of the students so when we all watch it with our families we can say like, ‘Hey, that’s me!’ We can all scream!” Hays says.

Dr. Karen Mathews, the Director of Health and Psychological Services at Central State, says putting commencement online was an easy decision because the college wanted to honor students and “at the same time keep them safe.”

Mathews says the Wellness Center at Central is busier now than it was when all the students were on campus. Seniors are graduating into the worst job market since the Great Depression. And current students don’t know what the fall holds. Mathews is urging students to reach out if they need assistance.

“The anxieties that are associated with this new unknown are significant,” Matthews says. “So it’s okay to say, ‘I’m anxious. I’m stressed. I need help.’”

Governor Mike DeWine gave the commencement address at Miami University's first virtual graduation on May 16, 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic.
Credit Miami University's Facebook Page
Governor Mike DeWine gave the commencement address at Miami University's first virtual graduation on May 16, 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic.

While Central State’s Commencement was live on one website, Miami University’s was airing on another. Governor Mike DeWine, a Miami alum, was this year’s speaker. He talked about the pandemic, and about the personal journeys graduates are about to embark on.

“Many of you don’t have a job yet, and many of you who do have a job don’t know if that’s what you want to do,” DeWine told the class of 2020. “I certainly understand that.”

While DeWine’s speech was pre-recorded on the college’s windy quad, graduating seniors watched the speech from a virtual Miami campus that was designed just for them.

Glenn Platt at the college’s department of emerging technology brought in a VR firm to create a video game world.

“We built a completely immersive virtual experience that replicates the best parts of graduation without the bad parts of graduation,” Platt said.

Rachel Berry was one of the Miami seniors that customized her avatar and toured the virtual campus. She says it was surprisingly detailed.

“You could choose which part of the campus you were in, and then they had screens in the little avatar world where you could watch [the graduation].”

Berry doesn’t have a job lined up. She says companies are laying people off instead of hiring. And for her friends who are still in school, the pandemic has a negative impact as well..

“A lot of companies that had previously had internship programs cancelled them because everything went remote or they can’t afford to pay people,” she says.

Still, Miami’s response to the situation has impressed Berry, who notes that the college has offered students help navigating the job market during the pandemic. She’s also been impressed by the college’s alumni portal, which connects students with grads in different industries.

With finals behind her, Berry is looking ahead and says she and her classmates will be just fine.

She says she doesn’t think “graduating in the middle of a pandemic is going to stop anybody from going after their dreams and finding success.”

And that’s a sentiment that every speaker shared at this weekend’s virtual commencements.