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Florida cancels university graduation ceremonies. ‘We all saw it coming.’

All events planned for May are canceled. Schools are being directed to develop alternate ceremonies sometime in the near future.
Students from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg await their turn to walk the stage during the school's commencement ceremony last year at Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg. The state canceled university commencement ceremonies this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Students from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg await their turn to walk the stage during the school's commencement ceremony last year at Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg. The state canceled university commencement ceremonies this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. [ Times (2019) ]
Published Mar. 17, 2020
Updated Mar. 17, 2020

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Florida college kids saw it coming. It was only a matter of time before officials canceled upcoming graduation ceremonies because of the coronavirus pandemic, but grappling with that news Tuesday was hard.

It came quietly, trickling through social media without any big announcement from the State University System, whose Board of Governors made the call. Now, tens of thousands of students are mourning the sudden death of their senior year.

"Traditional on-campus commencement ceremonies will not be held in May,” read a note on the state system website. “Instead, each university is directed to develop an alternate schedule or method of delivery.”

Also on Tuesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced during a news conference that four students at the University of Florida, including one who traveled internationally, have been found to have the virus. He urged students there, as did UF president Kent Fuchs, to leave campus, if possible.

During the same news conference, the governor ordered that all Florida universities continue online-only instruction through the end of the spring semester. The move to remote learning had previously been temporary, but DeSantis suggested a permanent mandate would encourage more students to relocate.

By late Tuesday afternoon, none of Florida’s largest public universities had finalized any new plans for graduation. Communications officials for UF, the University of South Florida, the University of Central Florida and Florida State University said their institutions are working through the situation.

Students, meanwhile, are just plain sad.

Danielle Oberle, a 22-year-old advertising senior at UF, cried when she learned graduation won’t happen. She said she found out from a news story on social media rather than from the university.

“We all saw it coming, from like a mile away,” she said. “But just knowing that it’s finally actually canceled is hard, because our entire last senior semester is over. ... It’s something you look forward to your whole time at university."

Danielle Oberle, University of Florida.
Danielle Oberle, University of Florida. [ Courtesy of Danielle Oberle ]

UF spokesman Steve Orlando said the school is working to make new plans, which will be announced at a “later date.” The university will continue online instruction through the start of the summer term, using the Zoom service, in which professors give their lessons live and students can ask questions from their remote sites. Professors continue to have “office hours," only not in person, Orlando said.

The University of Central Florida announced the news about graduation in a tweet, citing “deep sadness” over the cancellation. “We know this is a special day for our Knights and their families,” it read, “and we are looking into how and when we can best provide that experience to our spring graduates.”

Trevor Wild, a 21-year-old public administration senior at UCF, called the news “very depressing" but not surprising. He’s disappointed that he won’t get to walk the graduation stage but more so that he will miss the last three months of “just being a college kid."

He worries, too, about the strength of the job market he and his classmates are entering. The coronavirus is having extreme effects on the economy, prompting feelings of uncertainty for soon-to-be graduates, Wild said.

Trevor Wild, University of Central Florida.
Trevor Wild, University of Central Florida. [ Courtesy of Trevor Wild ]

“The implications of this go on and on,” he added. “The entire experience of college was flipped around in a matter of a week. ... How do you take a final exam when a global pandemic is going on?”

Students at FSU are troubled by the cancellation, too, said political science senior Chris Klaban, 23. On top of that, local businesses in Leon County are worried about losing out on the out-of-town customers graduation usually draws.

Chris Klaban, Florida State University. [Courtesy of Chris Klaban]
Chris Klaban, Florida State University. [Courtesy of Chris Klaban]

Klaban said a joke is going around that students will receive diplomas from “Zoom university,” a nod to the program the school and others are using to offer remote instruction. Another joke is that the coronavirus has made it so they’ve only spent 3.67 years at FSU, not four.

“Everyone is on the same wavelength,” he said. “Nobody is happy. ... I’m definitely upset, but I understand why we have to do this.”

The University of South Florida put out a statement late Tuesday afternoon, calling commencement a “vital element of the university community and an important milestone in the lives of students and their families.”

The university said it is working to “develop creative alternative solutions, including the possibility of expanding August ceremonies to include spring graduates.”

Sarah Vinson, University of South Florida. [Courtesy of Sarah Vinson]
Sarah Vinson, University of South Florida. [Courtesy of Sarah Vinson]

But that likely won’t work for USF St. Petersburg senior Sarah Vinson, she said. She has a full-time job lined up in Orlando starting in June and doesn’t expect to be able to travel back for a rescheduled graduation ceremony.

“I was excited to celebrate such a great achievement earlier in my life,” the 19-year-old said. “I walked out of class on Friday not knowing that it would be the last time. I worked real hard to get here.”

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