Commencement for Goshen College’s class of 2021 will take place in person on Sunday, April 25 at 3 p.m. in the Roman Gingerich Recreation-Fitness Center, a decision announced by President Stoltzfus and the commencement planning committee last Friday.

After last year’s commencement ceremony was held online due to COVID-19, a student advisory group pushed to give themselves and their peers a chance to walk across the stage and receive their diploma in person – a request being made by college students all across the United States.

“Keeping safety as our guiding concern, our highest priority is to honor our undergraduate and graduate student achievements with an in-person commencement ceremony,” said President Stoltzfus, in an email sent to campus last week.

Two senior students – Clara Unzicker and Amber Heydon – along with registrar Jan Kauffman and director of the Music Center Brian Mast met at the beginning of February to decide what students held as their highest priorities and what their hopes were for commencement this year.

“For me, the most important part about having an in-person graduation is that we’ve spent the last four years working extremely hard and should be able to celebrate safely in-person and not via a screen,” Amber Heydon said.

Heydon originally drafted a proposal that included several options for an in-person commencement, one of which was a drive-in graduation, where guests could listen to the ceremony through a radio station in their car.

“We spoke about a number of different options from drive-in to multiple smaller groups with guests to off-site options,” Kauffman said.

As colleges and universities begin to plan for 2021, Inside Higher Ed anticipates another year of graduation ceremonies with “less pomp, and more circumstance.”

While larger schools have more resources – stadiums, football fields – to make safe, outdoor ceremonies possible, the reality is that students at other colleges won’t be as lucky.

Under the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on social gatherings, upcoming commencement ceremonies are at a “higher risk” for transmission of the virus.

Much of the impending decisions are widely dependent on the state of the pandemic in the spring months.

“We’ll continue watching the infection rates locally and nationally, as well as county guidance and vaccine roll-out,” Stoltzfus said. “Health system capacity is always a critical factor; however, that is in good shape right now.”

The in-person ceremony, which will include graduates, faculty and staff, will also be livestreamed for those unable to attend, though a decision to accommodate additional guests has yet to be made.

A decision regarding limited guest ticket availability will be made by March 31, President Stoltzfus said. 

As for the ceremony itself, the logistics of the program are still being determined.

“There has not been a decision yet on who will speak at commencement as we discussed whether students should speak along with the president or faculty member or if [we will] have an invited guest address the class,” Kauffman said.

Each graduate will be photographed upon receiving their diploma, and photos will be available for purchase the following weekend. 

“Other events throughout the weekend are still being planned with input from graduates, faculty and the Pandemic Task Force,” said President Stoltzfus in the campus-wide email. “In addition to department gatherings and a Sunday morning baccalaureate service, I hope to host an outdoor dinner party and celebration of you, the Class of 2021.”

Beyond Goshen College, colleges across the country are facing the same question: Can they safely and successfully pull off an in-person graduation?

“It’s a complex set of decisions with many stakeholders,” she said. “We want to provide a meaningful celebration for students and their loved ones, keeping everyone as safe as we can, and we also need to make plans that are logistically practical.”