As most graduation ceremonies went virtual this year, one Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)-affiliated college in West Virginia made good on its promise to give the Class of 2020 an in-person commencement. The ceremony for Davis & Elkins College graduates took place in the fall instead of spring, it wasn’t on campus and the whole class didn’t share one single stage.
What did occur was the week-long, 11-stop “D&E Journey Tour” where college administrators took to the road and brought the ceremonies to its graduates. Although a traveling commencement wasn’t the college’s first choice for celebrating students’ milestones, it kept with the institution’s hallmark of providing individualized attention.
“It is about the personal experience for Davis & Elkins students,” said President Chris A. Wood.
When it became apparent last spring that an in-person graduation was not possible because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wood prepared a video message for seniors asking for their input on when they would like to gather for commencement on the college campus. They chose the annual Homecoming and Family Weekend, which at the time was set for mid-September.
An overwhelming number of graduates responded and although each was limited to only a few guests, the expected crowd exceeded 1,000 people – a number much higher than allowable for gatherings in the Mountain State. As the date grew closer and the student body returned to campus for the fall semester, administrators began to re-evaluate their plans with the well-being of everyone as the top priority.
“We have a ‘safety bubble’ over our campus, so to speak, and we made the decision to take commencement on the road for the protection of our campus, our alumni, guests and the greater Elkins community,” Wood explained. “In May I made a pledge on behalf of Davis & Elkins College to the graduating class of 2020 that there would be a commencement ceremony. I wanted to keep that promise to our graduates.”
When discussing the options available, it soon became apparent that taking graduation on the road was the best choice. The first hurdle was to ensure the health and safety of our graduates, their families and the D&E contingent. After detailed discussions with the Randolph-Elkins Health Department, appropriate protocols were put in place.
The “D&E Journey Tour” took form with locations mapped out according to regions where the greatest number of graduates reside, and the college called on its friends within the Presbyterian Church community and beyond to secure outdoor venues. Traveling in Davis & Elkins College vans and cars packed with diplomas, caps and gowns, and a 7-foot-tall cutout of the college’s mascot Mr. Senator, the group made their way through four states.
“This certainly isn’t what we imagined an alternate commencement exercise might look like,” Wood said. “And I feel pretty certain these stops weren’t what our graduates were expecting. I think these graduates understand not getting hugs and handshakes from us for their accomplishments. It’s what is in your heart that counts.”
The itinerary was Lewisburg, Charleston, Bridgeport, Parsons and Elkins in West Virginia; McLean and Petersburg in Virginia; Akron, Ohio; and Lutherville, MD. From church parking lots to amphitheaters, each of the ceremonies was unique with graduates sharing their experiences of their college career. Standard protocols of wearing masks and observing social distancing were put into action as graduates listened to comments from Wood and Chairman of the Board of Trustees Mark Barber, were hooded by family members and friends, and received their degrees with safety in mind throughout the celebrations.
“Parents told me they were grateful that we did this,” Wood said. “D&E is really about people and experiences you have with those people. Celebrating those relationships is what made this so special.”