Seniors across the University of Illinois system mourned the news Tuesday that the university had canceled commencement ceremonies at its three campuses in Chicago, Springfield and Urbana-Champaign.
The students said they were stunned at how rapidly their plans for their final few months of college had changed. “This just kinda feels like a dream,” said Morgan Carey, a senior at the University of Illinois-Chicago. “You can’t really get away from it.”
The University of Illinois is the first public university in the state to cancel arguably the most important annual event on campus, following schools across the country as they limit large events to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.
“Even small turnouts, however, would far exceed the guidance issued last weekend by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to slow the spread of the virus,” President Timothy Killeen said in an email Tuesday. “The new guidelines call for canceling or postponing all large gatherings for at least the next eight weeks — a timeline that brings us within days of our May commencements.”
According to an email sent to the university community, diplomas will be mailed, and each campus is considering virtual events or rescheduling graduation at a later date. Carey said many of her friends are international students who had to quickly pack up and head home without even having a chance to say goodbye. She wondered if they could return for a rescheduled event.
Still, students said they understood why the university made the decision.
“A few hours of speeches with several thousand people sitting in an enclosed space seems like a pretty bad idea given the circumstances,” said James Marden, another senior at UIC. “It seems like the right thing to do.”
Marden has had a tough few years at UIC. He was on the men’s gymnastics team when it was cut his junior year. They shifted to a club team this year, but that final meet was also canceled due to COVID-19. Seniors often live in off-campus apartments so they aren’t facing immediate move-out deadlines like many students who live on campus. Marden said he’s still deciding whether to stay or travel back to Boston, where he grew up.
“If I’m not coming back for graduation that means I have to clean out my whole apartment now and tidy up before I leave,” he said. “It’s still quite up in the air and I’m not sure what to do about it.”
Students across the University of Illinois are currently on an extended spring break as faculty shift courses online. That can be more complicated for seniors who are more likely to be completing a thesis or major final project, which is difficult to complete online. Kate Ferreira is a senior majoring in mechanical engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. She and a team of students were working on building an exhibit for a children’s museum for her senior design class.
“If my teammates won’t be able to meet and physically build it, [then] we can’t deliver the exhibit at the end of semester like we hoped to,” she said.
Instead, they’ll have to settle for sharing the plans they create for how it could be built and presenting that to the museum.
Students said the news about commencement was disappointing, but not entirely surprising since UIUC announced Monday it was requiring all students who live on campus to return home if they could do so safely.
“We did have a bit of a cry about it yesterday,” Ferreira said. “A lot of us are sad our parents won’t have a chance to see us walk across the stage and have that chance to celebrate.”
She said she and her friends have discussed other ways to eventually celebrate, including a small dinner with their families or a trip when it becomes safe to travel again.
For Marden in Chicago, his whole college experience feels unfinished.
“It’s a little weird to come to the end of your college career, all four years spent in one place working toward getting this degree, and having no closure to it,” he said. “It’s just emptiness.”