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UST’s Fall 2020 Commencement: “The Winter Walk”

It’s winter graduation weekend for UST seniors, but like so much in 2020, the experience has mostly been virtual. 

In addition to a Baccalaureate Mass live-streamed from the Chapel of St. Basil Friday night, the University of St. Thomas’ 2020 winter commencement is taking place online. 

According to an email sent by Vice President for Marketing and University Relations Jeff Olsen, UST had to scrap plans for its in-person ceremony after the graduation venue, the SMART Financial Centre, told the university it could no longer host the commencement because of the pandemic. 

“After consulting with the same medical experts that have been advising UST since March, it has become clear that we will not be able to do a traditional commencement this December as we had hoped,” Olsen told the Independent in November.

As a result, Olsen said the UST events team came up with the idea of The Winter Walk, a video-recorded, socially distanced opportunity for graduates to walk across a stage on campus on a designated date and time to receive their diploma and have their photo taken.   

“We knew we couldn’t get people together and have them be close, so we pre-took a picture of [UST President] Dr. Ludwick and the chairman of the board standing six feet apart, with a gap between them and a green screen behind them,” Olsen said. “We’re going to try to drop each student into that picture or have that available for them to do so we can still have that graduating picture even if it didn’t happen live.”

The UST events team will then edit the video of students crossing the stage along with remarks from the commencement speaker, Ludwick, and the chairman of the board. Olsen said graduates also have the option of waiting to walk at the upcoming spring commencement scheduled for May 8, 2021.

“Of course we’re disappointed that we couldn’t have the big commencement that we wanted, but we think this is a pretty good solution given the situation that we’re all in,” Olsen said. “This solution is one that we think meets as many of those desires that the students had as possible.”

Senior philosophy major Thomas J. Garcia posted his thoughts on the St. Thom app following the Winter Walk announcement, calling the virtual commencement a “good compromise.

“At least we’ll be able to cross a stage and receive our diploma, plus have our picture taken on campus this December,” he wrote. “Considering we were to be limited to six guest tickets for commencement, streaming the walk-across would have a greater reach to our relatives and other guests, too.” 

However, Garcia said he and a fellow graduate were inconvenienced by what he says was a delay in communication from the UST events team about his assigned arrival date and time after they registered for the Winter Walk. The students’ guests needed to know the schedule so they could request a day off from work in advance, he said, but they received their ceremony arrival date and time on Dec. 4, barely a week ahead of time.

Olsen said he and the rest of the events team are doing the best they can under the circumstances.

“The events team has been working every single day and every single night this month to try to make it as convenient and as memorable for students as they can, so I’m sure there was nothing intentional about trying to delay somebody’s information,”             

Senior general business major and economics minor Roxanne Cepeda said she found the registration process for the winter commencement “simple.”  

“The only issue I have with the [registration] process is that you are given random times, and I don’t get to see, or know, if any of my friends who are graduating with me will be assigned to the same day as me,” Cepeda said. 

 Nonetheless, Cepeda said the way UST treated its graduating seniors was “kind of annoying.” 

“It’s been a game of getting our hopes high and then crushing them at the very last minute or ignoring us completely,” Cepeda said.

“I’m very sorry that that student feels that way,” Olsen said. “All of us were kind of crushed by the fact that we weren’t able to do a larger commencement, but that situation has played itself out at every university across our region, and we’re just trying to give students the best possible commencement celebration that we can.”    

Cepeda said she chose to graduate at the winter ceremony because she wants to close this chapter of her life and move forward. As someone who works at a hospital and tested positive for COVID-19 in June, she said she understands the limits imposed by the pandemic, but wishes UST had stuck with one socially distanced graduation plan from the beginning instead of holding out hope for a traditional commencement ceremony in December.

“Maybe things would have been easier to process mentally and emotionally,” she said.

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