Do you know why I am passionate about our graduation ceremonies? Truth is that I draw strength and motivation from the energized students, their happy parents and loved ones, the faculty and staff who renew their silent vows to the academy with each ceremony, and the Ocean Bank Convocation Center that is filled with joy and serves as a momentary sanctuary from all that is going on outside. So the parade of giddy students across the stage, the pomp and circumstance of the regalia that bedecks us, and the commanding power of the charge to the graduates — it confirms why we do what we do.
And now we have to do something different. I was abruptly reminded of this upon a virtual “mugging” that I received as a zoom conference call concluded just days ago. There we were, soliciting input from non-profit members of a subcommittee for the South Florida Business Council, when one of the participants happily volunteered the following: “I am graduating this July from FIU with a doctoral degree. I hope you will be having a real graduation! Getting that degree will be the highlight of my life!”
You talk about mood swings in the last six weeks? We have all had plenty, but in that moment I felt totally deflated by this unintentional sucker punch from Diana Santagelo, the would-be graduate, about a “real” graduation. After all, I was just coming to grips with the reality of a “virtual” commencement that we are hosting on May 8, 2020. Indeed, one of the toughest days of the last 50 has been when our hard-working commencement planners led by Cameron Jones announced to me that the Spring graduation definitely would be “virtual.” This hit me like a ton of bricks. I went silent for the rest of the day, as they will attest. I could not hide my disappointment. So many people —students, their families, faculty, advisers, student ushers, agents — work so hard for so long to get to that symbolic day of completion. One door closing, another, possibly many, opening. The ritual disrupted. Centuries old rites now put on the shelf by the virus. We have never had a commencement disrupted at FIU. All gone.
Then … there I was, just days later in our deserted university. To be precise: in a production studio that would actually serve as the site of the virtual graduation with that navy blue gold embroidered robe hanging on me. A tam clinging to my head, the presidential chain of office adorning my regalia — as if this was actually how we always did it. And for the first and hopefully last time ever, I stood there with a face mask practicing CDC guidelines, ever consistent best practices that still guide us (don’t worry — the actual commencement video is sans mask.)
And there were the good, dedicated professional staff ready to record my COVID-19 commencement speech (or was it an elegy) before an audience of none in anticipation of the virtual audience who must settle this time for second-best to celebrate their loved one’s milestone achievement.
There is a silver lining, of course. The hard work of staff to cobble together the actual virtual commencement (Cameron, Dania Pearson-Adams, Melanie Rodriguez and others), and then the set-up team from facilities was there as well to ensure a quality staging. I was struck by the work of Lewis Feron, a Campus Support Maintenance Mechanic 3, who started at FIU a decade ago at the Biscayne Bay Campus. There was Lewis, along with Rafael Reyes, using a steam machine to remove the wrinkles from a flag that was behind me on the faux graduation podium. A veteran of countless event set-ups —including for the visits of President Obama and President Trump — the actual graduation set up “turned out pretty great,” according to Feron.
Usually behind the scene is our actual production crew — including FIU video producer Christopher Harding, Nelson Cairo Palazuelos, a multimedia producer, our AV Chief Engineer Jocelyn Martinez, and then Richard Pabon, a multimedia producer who has worked at FIU for 30 years. And listen to Assistant Director of Media, Technology and Imaging, Rocio Alves Milho Aguilar, on the virtue of the virtual graduation: “What is special about this format is that the students are original participants, their personal messages are part of this commencement, which is something that doesn’t happen in the in-person ceremony.”
Even in the midst of our disappointment at having just a virtual commencement at this point, there have been bright moments. Credit high energy Nursing major Anabelle Petisco with an Instagram hit spoof of graduation, me and her family. Her at home-do-it-yourself Tik-Tok style graduation ceremony, complete with her deliriously happy family including her father, mother and brother (both FIU graduates) and abuelo, abuela and bisabuela in loud celebration, has become a hit on social media, and could be the dominant icon of this virtual graduation. Watch the video — it will bring joy to your heart. The spoof reveals the underlying optimism and creativity of our Class of 2020 and speaks to their flexibility and can-do attitude.
And there is the wonderful story of another soon to be graduate — Sofia Scotti. The Terra High School graduate began her academic career at FIU in 2016 in both English and Psychology. A Presidential Scholar in the Honors College, the hard-working student served as an intern with both Senator Bill Nelson and then with State Senator Annette Taddeo. Although seeing her formal graduation crumble before her has been “disappointing and upsetting,” she appreciates that the virtual commencement is “kinda nice to close off her college years.”
But Sofia is not done learning; she is on her way to the Harvard College of Law, thanks to high grades, great recommendations, and persistence on her LSAT (she took it twice). She also credits the mentoring of one of our former students and now professional staff member, Anthony Rionda, a peripatetic savant who urged her to retake the law school admission test after she scored lower than she wanted. Sofia’s persistence and determination to succeed are enduring qualities of our FIU students.
You are all invited to attend our virtual ceremony on Friday May 8, 2020 at 10 a.m. Will this be our only virtual ceremony ever? In many ways that is up to all of us: can we do the things necessary to beat back this COVID-19? Can we provide assurances to Diana Santangelo that she will get the commencement she dreams about in just a few months that will be a “highlight of her life?” Regrettably we can’t make that commitment today.
But we can assure Diana and you that we have an army of faculty and staff who get the importance of the traditional commencement, and who will do their part to restore this great FIU custom. And I will be leading that march because as you should understand by now, I need those ceremonies to recharge and galvanize for the new normal ahead, which we believe will be even better for our FIU and our community. Virtual has virtue. But it is a second-best placeholder for the real thing and we know that now, more than ever!
Mark B. Rosenberg