How Walden brought graduates together, even when an in-person celebration wasn’t possible.
In a typical year, the Walden University Events Team spends five months planning a commencement ceremony from start to finish. But in March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic drove all university events online—including summer commencement—the team realized they had to adjust their expectations and their timeline.
“It was interesting learning and figuring out what we were going to do. We were building the plane while we were flying it,” says Monica Nelson, senior manager of the core commencement planning team, which dedicates hundreds of hours each semester to make sure each commencement event is a special one.
With hard work, determination, and creativity, Walden was able to create a commencement experience that not only met the goals of a traditional in-person ceremony but also in many ways exceeded them. A collection of digital offerings for graduates and their families culminated in a livestreamed celebration on July 18. The 50th Anniversary Graduate Celebration attracted more than 2,500 registered graduates—an increase of 22% over the 2019 summer ceremony—and more than 15,000 viewers on Facebook Live. Yet the foundation for the celebration’s success lay in a somewhat counterintuitive decision: by defining what the event wouldn’t be.
“We thought a lot about what was important to our graduates in the past—that moment of walking across the stage, bringing their families together, really celebrating. We thought that would be very hard to achieve in the virtual environment,” Nelson says.
Since Walden’s summer commencement occurs several weeks after the traditional college graduation season, the Events Team had the chance to see what was working for other schools. The group looked at more than 50 commencement events and ceremonies to determine which aspects were successful, and which fell flat in a digital format. Fairly quickly, the team chose to aim for an experience that would allow graduates and their families to celebrate safely at home—but without many of the trappings of a formal commencement.
“We ended up calling it a graduate celebration, not a commencement ceremony,” Nelson adds, noting that they received complete support from Walden’s leadership to move in a new direction. “Everyone was so willing and on board to take our recommendations and really keep graduates at the heart of this.”
Design Director Wesley Stuckey got straight to work creating a comprehensive celebration toolkit, which included everything from invitation templates for graduates to send to friends and family to Facebook profile frames, Instagram story templates, and coloring pages for kids. Social Media Content Specialist Meghan Willmore created a Graduate Celebration Facebook event, a community-managed space that gave graduates a place to share photos, ask questions, and connect with one another. Graduates shared more than 1,000 photos and left more than 7,100 comments in the Facebook event and on other social media.
“Commencement is a signature event at Walden, whether we convene in person or online,” says Ward Ulmer, president of Walden. “The photos and videos from our graduates, as well as the congratulations shared by our faculty and staff, were truly inspiring. It was a great demonstration of the passion our community has for Walden and our mission.”
During the July 18 live ceremony, graduate-generated content took center stage. As guests waited for the event to begin, they viewed photos students had posted on social media. Both President Ulmer and Paula Singer, chair of the Walden Board of Directors, referred to some of the social posts in their remarks. About 1,800 graduates submitted photos that appeared toward the end of the ceremony, just before President Ulmer led them in a tassel turn. The recessional song, “Celebration,” by Kool & the Gang, played over a series of congratulatory videos submitted by graduates’ friends and families.
“We received over a thousand videos, which was amazing,” Nelson says. “We couldn’t use them all, but we featured as many as we could.”
While Walden is looking forward to returning to in-person commencement celebrations as soon as conditions allow, Nelson expects some aspects of the all-virtual experience to live on beyond the pandemic. Graduates especially loved the resources provided in the toolkit, which they used in a variety of creative ways.
“Some people took photos with the Facebook frame, then had that translated to the top of a cake,” Stuckey says. “It was surprising—and wonderful—to see what graduates came up with.”
And although Walden has offered a livestream option for commencement ceremonies for the past several years, fully participating generally required travel. The summer 2020 Graduate Celebration Facebook event provided a template for how to engage these students and their families more holistically from home.
“During this event, we gave graduates attending virtually more opportunity to share their excitement,” Willmore says. “We got so many great stories from just giving people a platform for sharing.”
Despite all of the logistical challenges the Walden commencement planning team had to overcome, they were able to create a joyous celebration that helped create a small sense of normalcy in the midst of a global pandemic. Throughout both the planning and the event itself, one theme presented itself over and over again.
“Our graduates want to connect,” says Michelle Healy, senior director of the University Events Team. “Whether it’s face-to-face or virtual, our graduates want to come together. I’m so proud we were able to discover new traditions that we plan to include in future events, whatever they may look like.”