Masked and socially distanced as much as possible, MTSU Registrar Susan Fieldhouse and her three team members scurried back and forth Wednesday (May 20) among long tables set up inside the Student Services and Admissions Center, grabbing items from hundreds of stacked boxes of various sizes surrounding them and spilling into the hallway.
Fieldhouse along with Associate Registrar Cindy Johnson and transcript clerks Kay Gibbs and Christi Farris then strategically and neatly placed those items — diplomas, special tassels and programs, among other gifts — inside each distinctive blue and white True Blue Graduation Box that would soon makes its way to the home of one of MTSU's Spring 2020 graduates.
With COVID-19 forcing the university to hold a special virtual commencement May 9 for the 2,500-plus spring graduates, MTSU's leadership decided to create special commemorative boxes that are now being shipped to the latest group of True Blue alumni who pressed their way to hard-earned degrees through the most unique of circumstances.
"We hope that when the graduates open this, they know that we've been thinking of them," said Fieldhouse, who's overseeing a process that began Monday. "We really missed commencement because that's the highlight of our year, just to see those students and how excited they are. We hope that they receive this box and understand that a lot of thought and care went into this."
MTSU moved to remote instruction in mid-March and canceled on-campus events. Fieldhouse said the cancellation of spring commencement ceremonies at Murphy Center meant her office and the entire university needed to quickly rethink how best to honor the sacrifice and momentous achievement of this special group of graduates.
The True Blue Graduation Box includes the graduate's MTSU diploma cover with diploma inside; mortarboard; a unique blue tassel with 2020 drop; two commemorative programs; an invitation to a future ceremony; an MTSU T-shirt and special gift; an MTSU Alumni bag; an appropriate Latin Honors stole if earned; and a gift from the Daniels Veterans and Military Family Center for student veterans. The box exterior features a blue horseshoe and a congratulatory message of "You Did It!" to the Class of 2020.
For Johnson, who prints all diplomas for the Registrar's Office, packing the boxes has taken on a more personal meaning — her oldest son Lane graduated this month from University College with a bachelor's degree in integrated studies with a minor in music. She's making sure the diploma bearing his name and those of all graduates are correctly matched with the appropriate box before they're sealed, stacked on skids and readied for UPS pickup and delivery.
For Fieldhouse and her team, preparing the boxes requires a great deal of teamwork to ensure that critical details such as names, addresses, T-shirt sizes, appropriate honors stoles, etc., match up across the board for hundreds of awaiting graduates and their families.
"That accuracy and making sure everything is correct is of utmost importance," said Johnson, whose office handles traditional pre-commencement details such as the line of march, graduate name cards and posting of degrees. "That's what we're here for and I feel fortunate to have that responsibility… And we've had so much help from other departments on campus."
Boxes for graduate students were packed and shipped earlier in the week and some may already have already reached their destinations. The packing and shipping of all boxes should be finished in about a week, so most graduates should get their special package by the end of next week at the latest, Fieldhouse said.
MTSU is encouraging graduates to take and share photos from their homes once they receive their Graduation Box to be featured on the university's social media channels. MTSU gave graduates an opportunity to order gowns through a third party vendor at no cost except shipping, so some graduates will be able to deck out in full regalia for such photos, while others may want to "get creative" with a homemade substitute and "have fun with it," Fieldhouse said.
Graduates can submit their photos to firstname.lastname@example.org or tag MTSU on Instagram. The virtual commencement ceremony video and other details for spring graduates can be found at www.mtsu.edu/virtual-graduation.
Spring graduates also will have the option to participate in an upcoming commencement ceremony at Murphy Center, and the special MTSU blue tassel (instead of the traditional black) included in the box will distinguish the graduate as one who missed their original commencement because of the coronavirus.
All graduates who wish will have an opportunity in August to visit a drive-thru station at the MTSU Bookstore to pick up a gown or a gown and hood for those eligible, Fieldhouse added.
University Provost Mark Byrnes, who stopped by the SSAC to check on progress and even pitched in with packing, said that despite graduates not being able to have a traditional commencement ceremony, "the university has done everything it can to make the process special for them … so I'm really proud of this effort."
Byrnes is leading a university task force charged by President Sidney A. McPhee with developing plans to return to some level of on-campus instruction in the fall as public health guidelines allow. "We want students back on campus," he said. "We're still working on the details of what that looks like."