As coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to spread, many colleges have canceled commencement altogether. As of March 19, Forbes reported that 42 colleges nationwide have canceled commencement, or will be holding a virtual commencement for the class of 2020. By this time, University of New Hampshire (UNH) President James W. Dean had only just suspended all in-person classes for the remainder of the spring semester. In the email sent out on March 18, Dean said that UNH’s decisions are guided by their first priority: “the safety and well-being of our faculty, staff and students.” At the end of the email, President Dean said that UNH is reviewing contingency plans for commencement.
Soon after the email was sent out, graduating students took to social media with petitions asking the president to postpone commencement. One of these students was Mary Shotton. Shotton, a senior economics major, said that she had been keeping up with the news online, and on an hourly basis, as well as keeping close tabs on the many emails sent out by UNH.
“As I watched [each] college announce [their contingency plans to the public] I was in a lot of shock,” Shotton said. She acknowledged the threat that COVID-19 is to public health, but was heartbroken that her and the class of 2020 were going to miss the rest of their last semester.
While President Dean’s email didn’t give many details regarding commencement, Shotton had the foresight to start a petition when Rutgers University in New Jersey canceled her brother’s commencement altogether. To date, 3,366 people have signed the petition, and there have been 984 social media shares as of April 5.
“Commencement is the physical crowning achievement for many students. Seniors such as myself have not only worked four years for this, but have worked our whole lives for this. For many people, they are among the first in their families to receive a four-year degree, or complete college in general,” Shotton states in the petition’s description. In her discussion with The New Hampshire, Shotton also pointed out that the class of 2020 worked hard financially for this achievement and not just academically.
Shotton was not the only senior that felt UNH shouldn’t cancel commencement. Margaret Clarkson, a senior environmental conservation and sustainability major, agreed with Shotton’s rhetoric that the “time, effort and money” that parents and students have put in should be acknowledged. Heather Snide, also a senior environmental conservation and sustainability major, furthered Clarkson’s comments, saying in an email that her parents were looking forward to commencement, and that it means a lot to her friends. To Snide, commencement is also a chance for closure.
“[If commencement was canceled] I would be sad that I wouldn’t get the chance to really say goodbye to both my class and the university itself in a more ceremonious way,” Snide said.
Thanks to a great reception among her cohorts, Shotton sent President Dean an email describing her thoughts and suggestions on behalf of the class of 2020. On March 25, President Dean sent out a video to update the UNH community on their decision surrounding commencement for the class of 2020.
“We’ve heard you loud and clear that you don’t want us to cancel commencement (or) have a virtual commencement,” he said directly to the class of 2020 at the beginning of the video. President Dean went on to say that UNH is looking at some various options to postpone commencement to a later date. Commencement was originally set for May 16.
Erika Mantz, the UNH executive director of media relations and spokesperson, said in an email that the president’s office “heard loud and clear from our graduating students and their families that they wanted a ceremony, even if it was postponed, and they wanted it to be in person.” Unfortunately, Mantz said that is all the information the president can give at this time.
“Given the many unknowns that still exist around the COVID-19 pandemic, no new date has been set for Commencement,” she said.
Despite the president’s encouraging words to the class of 2020, Shotton continues to encourage people to sign the petition. Shotton believes that it’s important to keep the school aware of the wishes and needs of the class of 2020, and to keep the school accountable to do its part to support the graduating students during this time.