When the COVID-19 outbreak was officially declared a global pandemic, one of the first things we began to see in Toronto was the cancellation of events. One by one our workshops, lectures, and meetings were postponed indefinitely, or, eventually, shifted to an online format. Perhaps one of the most disappointing of these cancellations was convocation, an event that for many students is a milestone moment, a significant recognition and celebration of their hard work.
According to Karina Maynard, an MScPl student scheduled to graduate in June, the lack of closure was hard to contend with. “When talking to classmates everyone felt weird just handing in their last assignments and that being that,” she explained. The year before they had ended the term with a successful party, and in seeking to recreate the same sense of celebration, she and her classmates, Sabrina Musto and Justin Matthews, decided to throw a Zoom party.
Of course, as many of us know, Zoom and other online meeting platforms can be, well, awkward. As much as we may enjoy the sight of familiar faces, conversation does not flow in the same way and not everyone feels equally comfortable to occupy this digital space. Aware of these challenges, Karina, Sabrina, and Justin decided to fill the time with activities that would keep the event going, while allowing for all 42 attendees to participate.
Taking a page from their planning education, they engaged in consultation with their community, polling to find the best day for the event and brainstorming activity ideas together: “We made sure to do as much as possible to include the feedback of peers and make sure the ceremony had them engaged,” Sabrina explained.
The final itinerary included a distribution of awards, guest speeches from faculty members that taught their core courses, a photo montage with pictures submitted by participants, and a class photo taken in the form of a screen shot. They also voted for two class valedictorians (Congrats Natalie Douglas and Justin Matthews!) who put together a video reminiscing about the past two years in the program.
The awards portion of the night was perhaps the biggest hit. Executed in the format of an anonymous gift exchange, each participant was assigned (via a web-based name draw) a classmate on whom they were to bestow an award that they came up with themselves. These awards ranged from ‘best cartographer’ to ‘future motorcycling badass in transportation planning’, thus truly recognizing the unique talents of each individual.
The final result of these planners’ planning was a complete online ceremony that exceeded their expectations. “We started thinking it was just going to be a chat and then we ended up turning it into a whole ceremony,” Karina reflected, “the event gave us some closure and an opportunity to celebrate our accomplishments.”
The event may have even provided some things that a traditional ceremony could not. As Sabrina pointed out, it offered more personalized features, and an “opportunity to socialize and interact in a way that often can’t occur in traditional ceremonies”. It also allowed for more participants to attend, including out of province and international students that had to go home early due to COVID-19.
Since announcing the cancellation of convocation, UofT has scheduled a virtual ceremony, and departments, including ours, are seeking ways to commemorate our students. As we begin to figure this out we can turn to initiatives like the one organized by Sabrina, Karina, and Justin. Their Zoom Graduation offers a sense of optimism and potential for new ways to celebrate and connect with our students.
Thanks Class of 2020 for the inspiration, and congratulations!