Imagine being responsible for one of the most important days in more than 2,000 people’s lives. Then imagine having that responsibility three times a year.
Then imagine doing it in a pandemic.
Middle Tennessee State University’s spring 2021 commencement ceremonies are returning to Murphy Center May 7-9 for a three-day, 10-event graduation weekend. The plan is to keep 2,000-plus undergraduate and graduate students, their six guests each, and 10 groups of supportive faculty, administrators and staff safely apart, but together, and all in mandatory masks, to mark the graduates’ accomplishments.
The university’s Registrar’s Office, currently led by Registrar Susan Fieldhouse and Associate Registrar Cindy Johnson, coordinates the massive effort each spring, summer and fall semester, relying on help from the University Provost’s Office, Murphy Center staff and multiple other departments across campus to make it all happen.
This spring, for the first time, students had to RSVP to reserve a spot in the limited space and times allotted for each college’s ceremony — or ceremonies, in some cases.
Instead of a capped-and-gowned procession, they’ll have assigned seats so they’re in the right order when their names are called to take their walk across the stage.
“That’s our biggest challenge, to make sure everybody stays in the right place in line,” Fieldhouse said. “We know that students are going to miss the traditional procession, but that’s just something we could not work out to meet the social distancing requirements and the time (limitations).
An MTSU student waves as she’s recognized on the Jumbotron at Floyd Stadium during the university’s fall 2020 commencement ceremonies last November. MTSU, which held virtual graduations for its May and August 2020 graduates because of the pandemic, held three outdoor events last fall. Spring 2021 graduates will return to Murphy Center May 7-9 for the first time since 2019 for a three-day, 10-event, socially distanced commencement weekend. (MTSU file photo by J. Intintoli)
“But I hope they’re pleased that they have the traditional setup with the stage, and the president and the provost will be up there and their dean. They won’t be able to shake hands on stage, but they will get to cross the stage and get their diploma cover and their photo made.
“They’ll have welcome remarks from their dean and not the traditional commencement speaker, because we’re trying to keep every ceremony to about an hour since we have so many in a day to be able to exit and fill up Murphy Center again.”
Dr. Tyler Henson, director of the MT One Stop and a longtime commencement herald — aka a traffic director for the graduates — has instructions for the 2,000-plus MTSU students who’ve RSVP’d to confirm their participation in a spring 2021 commencement ceremony inside Murphy Center. Check out his video below, which also is available to watch here.
Growth led to graduation tickets, multiple ceremonies
The office’s staffers have handled graduation logistics for decades, making sure that everything’s in place to culminate in each student’s walk across the Murphy Center stage since the university moved its commencement ceremonies to the then-new facility in 1973.
Booming student enrollment in the 1990s and early 2000s led to overflow graduation crowds each semester in the 10,000-seat multipurpose center.
By 2003, MTSU had to limit its “record numbers” of 1,500-plus graduating students to eight ticketed guests each and seat their extras in Alumni Memorial Gym to watch a simulcast.
In May 2005 the university added a second ceremony to manage graduation day for its eight degree-granting colleges. In May 2016, the College of Graduate Studies added its separate Friday-afternoon ceremony to MTSU’s spring graduations, traditionally each year’s largest event.
Then, in February 2020, MTSU, and the rest of the world, turned inside out.
Fieldhouse, Johnson and their colleagues studied other universities’ pandemic commencement plans — and kept looking — for ideas to help graduating MTSU students.
Spring 2020 graduation was a virtual one, leaving graduates at home to celebrate while President Sidney A. McPhee congratulated them via videotape and their names and degrees scrolled by on the webcast.
The August Class of 2020’s graduation-day experience was the same: wearing caps and gowns from a special “True Blue Graduation Box,” hand-packed by MTSU staffers, and watching at home.
MTSU Associate Registrar Cindy Johnson places a diploma cover inside a “True Blue Graduation Box” for a spring 2020 graduate in this file image from the university’s Student Services and Admissions Center. May and August 2020 graduates received the boxes, filled with regalia and mementos, at their homes after the pandemic forced MTSU to conduct those commencement ceremonies as virtual events. Spring 2021 graduates will return to Murphy Center May 7-9 for the first time since 2019 for a three-day, 10-event, socially distanced commencement weekend. (MTSU file photo by Andy Heidt)
An unexpectedly warm and sunny November Saturday gave MTSU’s fall 2020 graduates a break: Students sat 6 feet apart, masked, in Floyd Stadium for MTSU’s first outdoor commencement ceremony in 48 years.
They stood and waved to their supporters in the stands on the opposite side of the football field, visible on large screens with the help of crews from the Department of Media Arts.
Spring grads are guests’ best info source
MTSU’s first Class of 2021 is scheduled to receive their final seating assignments by email today, April 30. They’ll be picking up their caps, gowns and guest tickets at the university’s Phillips Bookstore and Student Union Ticket Office today through next Friday, May 7.
They’ll still need to tell their supporters which ceremony to attend or watch online, however, because distributing 2,000-plus participating graduates across 10 hourlong events isn’t necessarily creating 10 equal, 200-student-per-college ceremonies.
Currently, MTSU’s College of Behavioral and Health Sciences is scheduled to present degrees May 7 in ceremonies set at 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. Central, while College of Liberal Arts students will graduate at 4:30 p.m. Central.
On Saturday, May 8, degree presentations in the Jones College of Business, College of Education and the College of Basic and Applied Sciences will be spread across ceremonies set for 9 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 2 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Central.
Students receiving master’s, educational specialist and doctoral degrees from the College of Graduate Studies will participate in the college’s ceremony for their academic specialty. For example, a student earning a Ph.D. in history will be part of the College of Liberal Arts event.
The weekend’s final ceremony, set for 4:30 p.m. May 9, is reserved for those Class of 2020 graduates who weren’t able to participate in last year’s events.
The university will provide closed-captioning services for the live video streams as well as an interpreter on the stage for each ceremony.
McPhee and Provost Mark Byrnes also will speak to the graduates and their supporters at each event. The official spring 2021 commencement program, listing all the graduates by college and noting their honors, is available here.
A list of all the participating graduates, alphabetized by last name, and their commencement ceremony date and time is available below and here.
Pandemic planning proves what works
The graduation organizers said their pandemic planning has taught them that the old saying about not fixing unbroken things also applies to MTSU commencements.
“If you go back and look at our numbers, we’ve had excellent turnout for our graduation ceremonies, and we kind of had an idea of how many, based on numbers, would participate and would plan accordingly with historical data,” Johnson said with a laugh.
“I think we’ve learned that works well for MTSU. The RSVP part is a tremendous amount of added work for us, for sure. We’re ready to get back to the previous way when we can.”
A new MTSU graduate shows her degree to family and friends in the audience at Murphy Center at the university’s fall 2019 commencement event in this file image. MTSU, which held virtual graduations for its May and August 2020 graduates because of the pandemic, held three outdoor events last fall. Spring 2021 graduates will return to Murphy Center May 7-9 for the first time since 2019 for a three-day, 10-event, socially distanced commencement weekend. (MTSU file photo by Joe Poe)
That second figure includes 287 master’s degree candidates, 25 education-specialist degree recipients and 23 doctoral candidates, along with 26 graduate students who’ll receive certificates for their advanced study. One undergraduate student also is scheduled to receive a certificate.
May 8 will be the official graduation date listed on all diplomas, which will be mailed to graduates beginning May 24. Detailed information for all the students graduating May 7-9 is available at www.mtsu.edu/graduation.
Spring classes at MTSU ended April 28, and final exams are underway through Thursday, May 6.
MTSU will begin its summer 2021 semester on Monday, May 17. The semester will continue as a mix of remote-learning, online, in-person and hybrid courses, and mask-wearing will remain mandatory in all university buildings, during indoor and outdoor events, and outside if social distancing isn’t possible.
The university plans to resume mostly in-person courses and activities for fall 2021, which begins Aug. 23.
For status updates on MTSU, visit http://mtsu.edu/coronavirus.
— Gina E. Fann (email@example.com)