May 7—Saige Hughes waited in an empty Hannaford Hall at the University of Southern Maine on Wednesday afternoon. When her name was read aloud by the dean of students, Hughes walked past rows of vacant seats and stepped up to the stage. She pulled down her face mask to unveil a smile and posed for a photo.
The moment — signaling the end of Hughes' college career at USM — was over as quickly as it began. A friend and fellow nursing student, Alexa Goodrich, captured it in a cellphone video from the back of the auditorium as a handful of staff in the sparsely populated lecture hall erupted in cheers.
Welcome to graduation in 2021. For USM students, the celebration is usually marked with an in-person ceremony at Portland's Cross Insurance Arena that draws an audience of 5,000 family and friends. But this year, for the second year in a row amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, graduation will look different.
"I'd rather be in person but it's not the end of the world," said Goodrich, 22, of Berwick. "I'm just happy to be done with nursing school."
The University of Maine System is expecting to graduate 4,923 students at its seven campuses starting this weekend. Most graduation ceremonies will be virtual, but some in-person and interactive events are planned. Other colleges and universities across Maine are planning a variety of ceremonies, some virtual and some in-person, with restrictions on attendance, and testing or vaccination requirements.
At USM, students like Goodrich and Hughes were given the chance to walk across the stage in Hannaford Hall this week and pose for photos in their caps and gowns. About 300 students — roughly one-third the number who usually participate in graduation — showed up for socially distanced appointments while the event was livestreamed to their family and friends. Upbeat music played in the background and COVID testing was available for any off-campus students who haven't been regularly participating in the university's testing program. A video of a pre-recorded virtual ceremony at USM will be released Saturday.
"The realities that require a virtual celebration don't diminish how much we wish we could honor our 2021 graduates in person — or how much their achievements are worthy of a joyous celebration together," USM President Glenn Cummings said in a news release this week. "I will miss celebrating with our students in person on May 8th, but I will take some comfort in knowing that all who wish to participate in the ceremony will be able to do so — safely and wherever they may be."
Rylee Gehrke, a tourism and hospitality major from Fairfield, said the moment is bittersweet, as she had hoped to have her family celebrate with her at an in-person ceremony. "It's very different and not what I was expecting, but I'm definitely glad USM is taking precautions to keep everyone safe," said Gehrke, 24.
Maine's community colleges will hold virtual ceremonies over the next few weeks, with the exception of York County Community College, which will hold a graduates-only in-person ceremony at the Sanford Performing Arts Center on May 14.
Some private campuses, meanwhile, will hold in-person graduation ceremonies, but with precautions that include limiting the number of guests, holding multiple ceremonies for smaller groups of students and requiring COVID testing or vaccinations.
Bates College in Lewiston is expecting to graduate 473 students during two in-person ceremonies on May 27. The senior class will be divided into two cohorts based on last names and participating students may each invite two guests. The ceremony will be outdoors and guests must either be vaccinated, test negative for COVID prior to arrival on campus or be medically cleared of a recent COVID diagnosis.
The University of New England will hold three smaller in-person graduation ceremonies for undergraduates on May 15 at the Harold Alfond Forum in Biddeford. Because of space limitations, guests will not be allowed at the ceremonies, but they will be livestreamed for families and friends.
UNE will also hold virtual ceremonies for graduate students in the Westbrook College of Health Professions, College of Osteopathic Medicine and the College of Graduate and Professional Studies on May 16, according to spokeswoman Sarah Delage. She said students in those programs opted for the virtual ceremonies because the majority are scattered around the country.
At USM, graduates Natasha Petit and Jenna Beaulieu said a normal graduation would have been ideal, but they liked the chance to walk across the stage this week while their families watched the livestream. Beaulieu, from Saco, said she will watch the virtual ceremony with family Saturday morning.
"I like that they were able to do this for graduates so they could get the feel of graduating," Beaulieu said. "It's kind of sucky we didn't get to have our family here, but I know they were all watching online."
"With how many students are graduating, I don't think it would have been possible at this point," Petit said. "It would have been nice but I understand why we didn't have a real graduation."