Like many of my fellow graduating seniors, I was distressed when I received the email from PSU announcing that graduation would be virtual this year. Don’t get me wrong: I knew we wouldn’t be having our graduation ceremony in June at the MODA Center. It would be irresponsible to bring so many people together during a pandemic, when it’s more important than ever to be following the CDC’s social distancing guidelines. I’m not encouraging PSU to break those rules. However, I am insisting that PSU listen to its students and postpone the 2020 Commencement Ceremony rather than holding a virtual ceremony.
These four (or five, six, or thirty-five) years haven’t been easy. Everybody has faced their own struggles on their way to earning their degree. PSU is known to have unconventional students, whether they be working students, parents going back to school, or commuters. Everybody has their own story and everybody has overcome their own battles. I can only speak from my own experience, so that’s what I’m going to do: share my story with you in the hopes that it will encourage PSU to do the right thing and give the class of 2020 a real graduation ceremony.
PSU was painfully unhelpful during my health problems in my junior year. They refused to accomodate me in the ways that I needed to succeed. Doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me, but I was having excruciating stomach pains that left me unable to keep food down. I spent most evenings curled up on the bathroom floor just wanting the pain to go away. Because I couldn’t eat, I lost twenty pounds. Nobody could figure out what was wrong. I had radioactive medication injected through an IV to see if it was my gallbladder, then an upper endoscopy to see if there was something wrong with my stomach.
During this process, I continued to take a full course load because I was determined to get my degree. I didn’t want my GPA to suffer because I was missing classes, so I registered with the Disability Resource Center to ask for flexible attendance and was shocked to discover that this was not an option. I wasn’t missing class in favor of my own amusement—I was asking for leniency because I could not walk from my bathroom to my bedroom, let alone take the bus downtown. But the DRC offered absolutely no help or sympathy. Luckily, my professors stepped up and helped, sending me classwork at home and understanding when I missed class. I maintained my GPA and a full course load, no thanks to PSU admin. Getting to graduation has been a long, uphill battle. PSU didn’t let me go virtual when I was too sick to get out of my bed, showing that they don’t truly care about their students’ well-being. Why do they get to go virtual for our graduation just because it’s convenient for them?
illustrations by May Walker
The number of petitions online demanding that PSU reschedule the ceremony shows that hundreds of other students feel the same way. A petition on Change.org titled “POSTPONE [sic] the Portland State University spring 2020 graduation” has over 1,100 signatures in the month it’s been active. This petition states that students “will not stand with the fact that PSU has no intention of rescheduling [their] graduation, with no clear input from graduating students themselves or faculty. They have instead made it clear that this decision would be made for [students], not with [students].” It calls for PSU to work with the student body to postpone the ceremony.
The announcement of virtual graduation garnered an overwhelmingly negative response on PSU’s Facebook page. In the comments section, graduating seniors call this decision a “slap in the face” and say that PSU is not listening to its students. In contrast, Southern Oregon University is postponing commencement. In response to the unhappy comments on the virtual graduation announcement, PSU is replying with a canned response stating that they will “continue to pass along comments to…campus leadership. You may also visit https://www.pdx.edu/commencement and fill out the feedback form.” Students are understandably frustrated by this dismissive response and the fact that campus leadership has demonstrated an unwillingness to listen to their students.
PSU states on their Commencement Ceremony Information page that they “are not able to postpone commencement mainly because it is not possible to know how long coronavirus restrictions will last, which puts any future bookings of large venues in doubt.” But this is like saying that since the future is uncertain, there’s no point in trying. Our graduating class deserves better. Surely facilities exist that could house a ceremony, like the newly renovated Viking Pavilion or even the Park Blocks themselves. Smaller ceremonies could be held for each individual college rather than having six big ones like normal. It’s true that it will be logistically challenging to find a place to hold commencement, but between all the powers that be and the combined knowledge of the student body, I’m confident that a solution exists. If nothing else, the 2020 class could walk with the 2021 class next June. Any of these options would be preferable to sitting in front of our screens watching a glorified PowerPoint presentation and hearing our names read. To add insult to injury, PSU includes links on their Virtual Commencement Page to pictures of past graduation events, as if to show everyone what they will be missing.
It’s true that we, as the graduating class of 2020, are angry about this decision. But more than that, we are sad. Sad because after all this work, our accomplishment will not be recognized. Sad because our friends and family will not be able to celebrate with us. Most of all, sad because PSU has shown, yet again, that they only care about their students when it’s convenient for them.