By Megan Fayard and Jane Rob Pannell
The University of Mississippi will hold its first commencement ceremony recognizing two graduate classes at the same time, making history for the university.
The COVID-19 pandemic put a halt on graduation celebrations for the class of 2020 due to state and federal regulations. With the pandemic slowly dying down, students, parents, faculty, and staff are excited to be attending the 2021 graduation celebrations. Assistant Director of Special Events Ashley Baker said the Office of Special Events has dedicated countless hours of time in hopes of conducting a safe and memorable ceremony for 2020 and 2021 graduates. Planning for this year’s ceremony has been very different from previous years.
“This year has taken really a community effort through campus and all working together and really collaborating on reinventing the wheel,” said Baker.
The 2021 commencement ceremonies are scheduled to begin April 29 – May 2 and will be held in Vaught Hemingway Stadium, The Pavilion, and the Tad Pad. There will still be mandatory regulations in place to keep each individual attending the events safe. These regulations include masks and face coverings, social distancing, and tickets to enter the venues.
University of Mississippi graduation ceremonies this year will be ticketed events to ensure social distancing guidelines are followed. Each student is allotted a specific amount of tickets per family depending on the school they will be graduating from.
“I think the most difficult challenge for us has been planning this through all of the restrictions and regulations, and all of the back and forth, knowing it could pivot any moment,” Baker said. “But from day one, our biggest concern and number one priority is making sure that the in-person ceremony will be safe for our graduates, guests, and staff.”
Dean of the School of Education David Rock said that the preparation process for the ceremonies has not been drastically different compared to previous years. The only large difference for the ceremony for the School of Education will be the limited amount of individuals allowed on the stage at graduation and the social distancing that graduates must abide by while seated at the ceremony. The school’s ceremony will be held at the Pavilion this year.
Rock said that holding the ceremonies over the course of four days instead of the usual single-day graduation could actually be a good thing. He said that traffic getting from one place to another is hectic in a normal setting, but with the ceremonies split up, attendees should have an easier time with parking as well as entering and exiting venues. Rock has high hopes for the ceremony and has remained optimistic throughout the uncertainty.
“I’ve tracked the COVID numbers every single day. They have been dropping to a point where I was hoping that we would have the ceremony,” said Rock, “I think it’s going to be interesting. It’ll allow us to try something different.”
Rock said that despite the regulations, graduates are happy to have the opportunity to walk across the stage to receive their diplomas. He said that after this historic year, he has reminded graduates to be compassionate and to care. According to Rock, teaching through a virtual platform has provided us with the opportunity to see what technology can do in a positive way. He believes that the circumstances of the past year have taught graduates, especially those in the education field, more than years past.
“One thing is constant and that is change. Life’s not predictable,” said Rock, “I believe that this year’s graduates can actually change the world.”
Baker said the university has done everything possible to be able to celebrate these graduates in person. Venues will be sanitized between ceremonies, and there will also be hand-sanitizing stations placed throughout the venues. Elevators and restrooms will have limited capacity as well. Graduates will enter the venues at a designated entrance, and are instructed to leave the venue after they walk across the stage to receive their diploma.
“We started planning for in-person commencement ceremonies last summer and made adjustments all throughout the fall until this plan was finalized,” said Baker.
The University of Mississippi and the Office of Special Events expect most 2021 graduates to attend the events and are hopeful that many 2020 graduates will come back for their celebratory moment.
“I do feel like people are going to come back if they can, and I hope that they do. They can have their celebratory moment with their individual school ceremony, and can close that chapter of their lives,” said Baker.
The commencement ceremony guest speaker last year was set to be the CEO of Habitat for Humanity Jonathan Reckford. After the ceremony went the virtual route, this did not happen. The Office of Special Events recently announced that Reckford will be speaking at this years’ 2021 commencement ceremonies. The 2020 ceremony speaker will be Patrick Willis, former Ole Miss football star and NFL player.
“Last year, we kind of went the community route when we did the virtual celebration. We had more of our administrators and our community leaders and our active student body president instead of having a commencement speaker,” Baker said.
The Office of Special Events is ready to recognize these graduates for all of their hard work and achievements, with a somewhat traditional graduation ceremony. As for Baker herself, she is amazed by the strength and perseverance that these graduates, and any other college students, have shown throughout this past year.
“Y’all are such a strong group that are about to go out into the world, and you have experienced something in this time of your life that no one has ever experienced before. But all of these experiences and things you’ve had to deal with have made you tough,” said Baker. “And I’m sure it’s changed everyone’s outlook and the way you think about things.”
For more information on graduation ceremony dates and times, regulations for attendees, parking, tickets, and cap and gown pick-up visit https://commencement.olemiss.edu/.