NYU announced on Feb. 8 in a letter to the university community that the Class of 2021 will have a virtual commencement on May 19. A make-up in-person ceremony is tentatively planned for a later date. Many graduating students, such as CAS senior Tori Bianco, believe this decision was reached prematurely, as COVID-19 vaccination campaigns continue to progress nationwide and COVID-19 safety measures continue to ease.
Bianco started a petition a week after the university’s announcement to convince the administration to reverse their decision. The petition has garnered more than 1,000 signatures as of April 22. It outlines safety measures that could make an in-person ceremony possible in May, such as mandating masks, assigning socially distanced seating, limiting attendance to graduates only, splitting up the class into groups, requiring graduates to test negative for COVID-19 beforehand or requiring proof of vaccination.
“We’re not asking for a perfect in-person ceremony,” Bianco said. “NYU has been trying to be a good institution in taking the steps to be safe throughout the entire pandemic. But it can be the leader if it can put a very safe and exciting graduation together.”
Bianco was inspired by a similar petition that Class of 2020 graduate Paggie Tan created last year, calling for the postponement of an in-person ceremony when the state of graduation was still unknown. Tan’s petition amassed 4,628 signatures and was successful. However, an in-person graduation has yet to take place for the Class of 2020. A virtual commencement and a virtual reality Grad Alley served as temporary replacements.
“Last year, it was the total reverse — the school held out till the very last to confirm that an in-person ceremony was not possible,” Tan said. “I genuinely do think the school is trying, but it is extremely difficult to navigate any decision-making around in-person events right now when the landscape is changing everyday.”
Regina Drew, the university’s events director, said that NYU had to make an early decision so that students and families could plan ahead. Drew added that the university could not take a wait-and-see approach because a venue needed to be booked in advance.
“I want to be clear that the Class of 2021 and the Class of 2020 will be invited to return for an in-person ceremony as soon as we are able to hold one safely,” Drew wrote in an email to WSN. “We had no assurances [in February] — and still don’t — that all our students would have access to vaccinations by May, or that evolving public health guidance from both the city and the state would permit the size of gathering that NYU would require.”
Yankee Stadium — the location where NYU has held its commencement since 2008 — has limited its capacity for baseball games to 20% of its 46,537 seats, which allows for a little more than 9,000 attendees. Stern senior Peter Flores came across an Instagram story of Yankee fans at the stadium and tweeted a challenge to the university’s plans.
“I was shocked,” Flores told WSN. “It was a lack of effort. With vaccinations and health protocols, NYU could possibly have an in-person graduation. Now we’re a month away, so I don’t think anything will happen.”
Drew noted that with no guests, less than half of the 18,000-plus graduates would fit the stadium’s current guidelines.
“We are committed to providing the Class of 2021 with an in-person graduation ceremony to cap off their achievement at a later date, when they can safely gather and hug one another in the presence of their loved ones,” Drew wrote. “In the meantime, we are working very diligently — at the All-University level and at each school — to provide our students with memorable celebrations this May.”
CAS senior Ann Yoon, who is currently taking classes remotely from South Korea, said she is conflicted on whether an in-person ceremony should be held in May.
“From an international student’s point of view, I would prefer the ceremony to be in later months,” Yoon said. “But I am not sure if that is the best case for NYU seniors as a whole. If there is an in-person ceremony in May, I would definitely not want to be one of the only ones to miss out on the event.”
Tisch senior Jack Hobbs agreed with Yoon, saying an in-person ceremony should fall on a later date given the time constraint.
“It could be an optional version with online accessibility still in place in case some people can’t come back to the city,” Hobbs said. “I understand that a full class could be prohibited because it’s a big school, but it can be split by individual colleges. It would help minimize the potential for any spread.”
Other institutions in New York, such as Ithaca College, Vassar College and Syracuse University, have planned in-person graduations. Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently released capacity guidance, effective May 1, for indoor and outdoor commencement and graduation ceremonies depending on event location and size.
Regardless of when NYU’s in-person commencement occurs, Bianco hopes to have the opportunity to graduate from Yankee Stadium.
“My grandpa was a huge Yankee fan,” Bianco said. “Once I figured out I was going to NYU, I was so excited to have him watch me graduate from the stadium. He passed away in April of last year, so part of me wants to do it in his honor.”
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