Commencement: A New Beginning

Universities, community colleges and high schools are looking forward to in-person graduation ceremonies that will celebrate not only 2021 graduates but also the class of 2020.

Written by Leslie Criss | Photographs by Lindsey Meisenheimer and Taylor Square Photography “Often when you think you’re at the end of something, you’re at the beginning of something else.” — Fred Rogers

Graduation. That day set aside for caps and gowns, commencement speeches, turning tassels, tossing mortarboards and exchanging hugs, handshakes and high-fives. Then, no matter your age, celebrating with all the people who’ve made the day possible.

This year’s graduation ceremonies will be cause to rejoice for the obvious reasons, but the carefully planned in-person celebrations will also mark a much-anticipated return to normalcy (or at least closer to it) for north Mississippi graduates and their families.

At the University of Mississippi, not only will the class of 2021 receive their diplomas but also, after a year of waiting, the class of 2020 will finally get its due. The university will host an in-person commencement for its 2021 graduates as well as a second graduation weekend for the class of 2020.

With pandemic protocols in place, the graduates will be lauded in-person for their accomplishments, with the class of 2021 graduation exercises taking place April 29-May 2, with convocation at 8 a.m. May 1 in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. The class of 2020 will gather May 6-8, with convocation at 8 a.m. May 8 in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.

“While we were unable to hold an in-person event for the class of 2020 this past May because of the pandemic, we are eager to welcome them back to campus to celebrate and honor their incredible achievements, character and spirit,” said Chancellor Glenn Boyce.

The chancellor’s announcement came as a welcome surprise to many 2020 graduates.

“I was so excited to hear the news and knew immediately I would come back to Mississippi and be a part of our graduation,” said 23-year-old Katie Davis, of New Albany. Davis, who now lives in Washington, D.C., will celebrate her degree in public policy leadership and international studies.

“I’d be lying to say I wasn’t really disappointed,” Davis said, referring to last year’s virtual commencement event. “I was sad to not have the opportunities for final goodbyes to professors I loved and classmates I loved.”

Jamie Sproles, a 22-year-old Petal High School teacher from Hattiesburg, felt much the same. Sproles found ways to celebrate last year — by hosting Senior Week events with sorority sisters; enjoying a special dinner with Honors College classmates; and watching her virtual commencement with her family in Brookhaven. But it wasn’t the same as the real thing.

“A lot of my friends and I just felt what was planned — some sort of virtual commencement — was not very adequate,” Sproles said. “It did not feel very special at all.”

Sproles said she was pleasantly surprised and is happy to have a chance to retrieve some of the celebratory moments she missed out on last spring. Her family has already reserved a hotel room to be present for the weekend.

Many of Mississippi State University’s 2020 seniors who were unable to enjoy a live celebratory culmination of their college years took part in MSU’s December commencement. Those who were unable to participate in December will be included in spring commencement, said Sid Salter, chief communications officer at MSU.

MSU’s graduation ceremonies will be held in-person April 29-30 in the Humphrey Coliseum in Starkville. Masks will be required and graduates will be limited to four guests each. The ceremonies will also be livestreamed.

Itawamba Community College, with campuses in Tupelo and Fulton, has invited graduates from December 2019, May 2020 and August 2020 to participate in its 2021 traditional commencement ceremonies. ICC plans to host multiple graduations rather than a single one in the Davis Event Center on campus in order to accommodate students and comply with public health guidelines. Reduced seating capacity, social distancing and masks will be the order of the day. And the Davis Event Center will close for a required period of time to make certain the center is sanitized between each graduation. The commencement ceremonies are scheduled to take place May 13-14 and will also be livestreamed.

Colleges and universities are not the only institutions hoping for a semblance of normal this spring. High schools are also making plans for in-person graduation celebrations.

At Tupelo High School, where 2020 seniors took part in five smaller ceremonies in five different places last year, Gregg Ellis, director of communications at THS, said the goal this year is to have a single graduation ceremony in one place while following protocols for safety. THS graduation will be May 21.

After Oxford and Lafayette high schools had to cancel graduations scheduled to be in Tad Smith Coliseum last year, the schools arranged for seniors to each invite five guests — friends or family — to appear with them on their campus at a designated time over a multiple-day period to watch them receive a diploma. Videos made would later be broadcast for all to see.

Plans are in place for more typical events this year. An agreement was signed in March between the Oxford School District and the University of Mississippi for the use, once again, of Tad Smith Coliseum for Oxford High School’s 2021 graduation, according to Heather Lenard, public information officer for the district. OHS graduation is slated for 6 p.m. Friday, May 21.

Lafayette High School looks forward to a return to the ordinary as well for this year’s graduation. Ceremonies will be back on the university campus as well, with a backup plan to move to the LHS football field if necessary.

“As long as Ole Miss can host, that’s where we will be,” said Dr. Glenn Kitchens, LHS principal. “Everything will remain dependent on COVID restrictions, like limiting number of guests, but those things can be tweaked up until the week before graduation.”

Indeed, while safety standards such as limited seating, social distancing and mask-wearing will be in place for this year’s commencement ceremonies, it is likely many participants will find those small prices to pay for a chance to celebrate graduation alongside classmates, surrounded by friends and family.

“I don’t mind wearing a mask,” Sproles said. “Graduation is a big deal for me. I want to see my professors again and friends. I want to say the goodbyes I didn’t get to say last spring. It’s important.”

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