NORMAL, Ill. (WMBD) — Illinois State University (ISU) and other schools have been forced to shift graduation plans as COVID-19 continues to impact daily life.
In May and December of 2020, the university opted for a virtual-only graduation ceremony as Illinois’ COVID-19 mitigation procedures were more strict and limited the number of people at gatherings.
However, as things loosened in the state, ISU Director of Media Relations Eric Jome said the school wanted to bring out more pomp and circumstance to make the milestone moment more memorable for students and parents.
“We took this approach with a couple of different avenues to honor our graduates this year. Obviously last year at this time we were in the early stages of lockdown, [and] we weren’t able to do any in-person celebration. We did virtual ceremonies last year,” Jome said. “Those were nice, but it obviously wasn’t really the same thing.”
Tuesday, redbird graduates walked across the stage and received applause from loved ones as ISU brought back an in-person ceremony after the last two semesters of online-only ceremonies.
“We wanted to be able to do something a little bit more this time around and certainly with the state being able to open up a little bit more, we were able to do these stage crossings,” Jome said.
The Redbird Stage Crossing event allows graduates and families to feel some normalcy of a full-blown graduation on a smaller scale. Jome said the graduate were able to have up to four family members come inside the arena with them.
“People have said they just appreciated being here, coming in, walking across the stage, hearing the music, spending time with family and getting some photos taken,” Jome said.
Valerie Wozniak graduated with a Bachelors of Science in Medical Laboratory Sciences and said she was glad some sort of in-person option took place.
“I was actually very surprised how everything worked out. I think it’s a little more personable this way,” Wozniak said. “Obviously, it’s not as big of a celebration as a big graduation would have been, but I think ISU did a great job with this.”
Wozniak was one of more than 3,000 students who signed up to take the walk across the stage. After months of not knowing what a day she’s anticipated would look like, she was glad her loved ones could see the moment with her.
“It’s nice to have my loved ones here to celebrate even though it’s not the real thing. I think it’s just great to have,” Wozniak said.
Due to COVID restrictions, stage walks will take place over the next several days with 40 graduates signing up for time slots within a certain hour. Jome said it’s making the best of an unprecedented situation.
“It’s not quite the same as when Redbird Arena is packed to the rafters for a ceremony, but it’s the next best thing under the circumstances and it’s really gone over well,” Jome said.
Jome also said the university hopes to move towards a more traditional campus experience.
“Our plan is to move back toward a more traditional campus experience for the coming academic year,’ Jome said. “We’re hoping to eventually move back to more traditional commencement ceremonies as well, but a lot will depend on state Covid guidance on large gatherings.”
Jome said the stage walks are being live-streamed online and starting Friday May 7, speeches from deans of colleges and President Larry Dietz will be available online for graduates and families to watch.