Always quick to embrace innovation and change, UMGC adjusts to COVID-19—and the preferences of adult learners—by reimagining the graduation experience.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article appears in the 2022 issue of Achiever Magazine
By Menachem Wecker
A new mom in full graduation regalia made her way through the College Park Marriott Hotel & Conference Center. She scanned her personalized barcode and a computerized voice read her name. She crossed the stage with her baby in her arms, and UMGC President Gregory Fowler handed her her diploma folder. Her family applauded and snapped photos from a reserved space just a few feet from the stage.
Smiling, she looked down at her baby and said, “We did it!”
A DIFFERENT GRADUATION EXPERIENCE
In a typical commencement, graduates sit with classmates while friends and family members sit in the audience. They listen to speeches and watch their classmates cross the stage. When their moment arrives, it is fleeting, and loved ones often struggle to catch a glimpse of the graduate.
UMGC’s Grad Walk 2022—held May 17 to 22, 2022—offered a completely different experience, one that focused on students, their wants and needs, as well as the health and safety of graduates, guests, and community members.
Because of COVID-19, UMGC’s graduating classes of 2020 and 2021 had been unable to march, and as the pandemic ground on, the university began exploring other scenarios.
Serena Williams, associate director of Commencement Services, noticed that other schools were hosting ceremonies that allowed graduates to march individually, making it easier to social distance. With that as the starting point, she developed a concept tailored to UMGC.
“We made adjustments that really honored our university, our demographic, and our graduates,” said Angie Grant, acting director of Commencement Services.
PAYING ATTENTION TO WHAT STUDENTS REALLY WANT
At Grad Walk 2022, graduates and their guests arrived in Adelphi and remained together until it was time for the graduate to cross the stage. When they did, their guests enjoyed an unobstructed view of the stage. If they needed an extra moment to capture photos or videos, or if graduates wanted to march with a friend or family member, they were encouraged to do so. (Professional photographers and videographers were also onsite to ensure that each graduate would receive personalized images and footage.)
Over the course of six days, more than 3,300 graduates—from the classes of 2020, 2021, and 2022—crossed the stage. Those who wanted a more traditional commencement experience could view a recorded ceremony on demand, which included a keynote address, remarks by a student speaker, and the conferral of degrees by the president. Including graduates and their guests, more than 23,000 people participated in the Grad Walk.
“We paid attention to what graduates really want (based on previous post-commencement surveys and other feedback),” said Grant. “They want to hear their name called, to cross the stage, receive their diploma from the president, have their family and friends be there to celebrate them, and be able to share the moment on social media. This event brings those experiences together. They get a chance to be honored and celebrated, and in a way that reduces the risk for everyone.”
The response from students was enthusiastic.
In a post to LinkedIn, student speaker Jayla Nowlin wrote of being filled with gratitude. “I finally got to walk across the stage and be celebrated with my family,” she said. “Every detail was exceptional.”
A U.S. Marine information technology professional stationed in Hawaii posted a photo with his wife and two children, one of whom wore his sailor cap. Another graduate tweeted, “Finished my degree in 2020, but got to take my UMGC Grad Walk today!”
Another post on LinkedIn thanked UMGC’s president for taking the time to meet with graduates as they exited the room.
“You make it easy for veterans to enroll and work through the required processes,” one graduate wrote. Another added, “Year and a half later, I finally got to walk! What made it better? I got to do it with my husband who graduated this year!”
THE MAGIC THAT IS UMGC
Fowler and other university leaders spent hours on site every day, distributing degrees and meeting graduates, family members, and guests as they waited in line or, afterward, in a designated “celebration zone,” along with representatives of the UMGC Alumni Association.
Graduates could take photos in front of Maryland-themed backdrops and write messages on a signature wall, which Fowler was the first to sign. During Grad Walk, he also had the opportunity to meet graduates in person and hear their stories firsthand.
One student was homeless before finally landing a job. Another homeschooled seven children while studying at UMGC. A third deployed while still continuing to pursue a degree. It isn’t uncommon for students to report that it has taken them a decade or more to complete their degrees, with family or military responsibilities periodically interrupting their progress.
“I think that is amazing,” Fowler said. “When you hear stories like, ‘We were out in the field with our night vision goggles, reading the book, because we wanted to get the degree done’—it is just unimaginable if you are only thinking about the traditional college coming-of-age experience.”
Stories like these make up “the magic that is UMGC,” Fowler said, adding how proud he is to be able to accommodate the unique needs of nontraditional students while bringing the university’s years of experience to bear on commencement as well.
“Do not be surprised if you see some version of this happening in a number of places where we do graduations,” he said.