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College graduations will vary widely this year, and families feel they’re missing out

Paola Sierra de Valerio will have guests at her Northern Essex Community College commencement. But many grads won’t.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

It’s not every day that Harvard’s graduating seniors are envious of their peers.

But when it comes to this year’s graduation ceremonies, which the college will hold virtually in late May, there’s more than a little bit of wistful yearning among Harvard’s students.

“It’s definitely tough, when you have so many schools in the country [doing something different] and it’s hard not to compare,” said Prashanth “PK” Kumar, 22, from Atlanta, who as a second marshal helps organize senior class events leading up to commencement. “Harvard’s making the safest choice at the moment, but I would love to have my family and friends visit.”


The pandemic forced commencement online for all colleges last year, but this spring as vaccines are becoming readily available, schools are diverging widely on how they’re celebrating their seniors, leading students and their families to lobby for more of the traditional pomp and ceremony.

Northeastern, Suffolk, and Bentley universities are all separately holding in-person commencement for graduating students and a small number of their guests at Fenway Park, converting the outfield into a socially distanced green for students instead of baseball players. Attendees will have to wear masks and complete a health survey to take part in the celebrations.

Boston University, which has 6,930 graduating students, is hosting its commencement at Nickerson Field, the school’s athletics stadium, but students aren’t allowed to invite any guests. Boston College is also limiting commencement to graduating students and school officials, angering more than 2,000 parents who have signed an online petition urging administrators to reconsider the guest policy.

And even in the University of Massachusetts system, commencement plans vary. The Amherst and Lowell campuses will hold in-person graduations in May. But UMass Boston will hold a virtual ceremony this spring. However, after an outcry from students who have spent the past year in primarily online classes and frustrated that they would still be charged the usual $200 graduation fee, UMass Boston officials announced this past week that it would also hold an in-person graduation in September.


“The commencement planning feedback made it clear to us your collective wish for hosting some version of an in-person ceremony to recognize our graduates, rather than rely solely on a virtual event,” UMass Boston Chancellor Marcelo Suárez-Orozco wrote in an e-mail to students Tuesday. “I ask for your patience and understanding as we continue to plan how best to recognize the hard work and extraordinary accomplishments of our graduates, and their culminating achievement in graduating under these most difficult of circumstances.”

UMass Boston isn’t the only school changing its commencement plans. Earlier last week, Stanford University, which had been planning for a fully virtual ceremony, announced the event would be held in-person in June after improvements in the public health situation and the relaxing of outdoor gathering rules by California officials.

Even during normal times, organizing commencements and all the traditional events particular to each campus — from champagne brunches and costume parades to alumni reunions — requires months of careful preparation. The pandemic and public health guidelines have made it an even more complicated logistical feat to pull off.

Colleges said many of their commencement plans hinge on state social distancing rules, the size of their venues, and the numbers of students who are planning to attend.

For example, Northeastern is holding two ceremonies each for undergraduates and graduates over a weekend in May to accommodate all the students and their permitted guests. Northern Essex Community College has divided students by academic study areas and is holding five small outdoor ceremonies at its Haverhill campus.


BU has barred guests from attending commencement because state and Boston COVID rules allow outdoor stadiums to hold only 12 percent of capacity and Nickerson Field does not have the space, said Rachel Lapal Cavallario, a spokeswoman for the university.

BU also wants to ensure that only those who have tested negative for COVID-19 attend the ceremony, and students and faculty will be screened before commencement, Cavallario said.

“The decision is driven by the state and city’s capacity limits, as well as public health protocols and concerns,” she said.

The university is conducting two ceremonies, one for undergraduates and the other for graduates, because of the high interest among students. Family and friends will have to watch the ceremony live-streamed from home — but in an attempt to make it more interactive, the college will provide translations in multiple languages and post any social media congratulatory messages from family and friends on a Jumbotron set up on the field, Cavallario said.

Still, some parents say the college should make accommodations for guests who are fully vaccinated.

“We finally get our kids through this stuff, graduation is looming, and boom we’re struck down,” said Lisa Rinkus, a Newton parent whose daughter is graduating from BU. Rinkus said she and her husband were vaccinated and were looking forward to being there when their only child got her diploma. “It’s a huge, huge milestone. We want to be there after paying tuition all these years.”


For many students the challenges of this past year have made the prospect of an in-person commencement even sweeter.

Paola Sierra de Valerio, 31, emigrated from Spain and spent years in English-language classes so she could earn a US college degree. She has been working full-time while she earned her associate’s degree at Northern Essex Community College, including last year at a senior living facility that was hit by a COVID outbreak.

Her husband and a friend of her mother’s plan to be in the audience when she receives her degree. Her mother will be watching online from Spain.

“We all wait for this moment,” she said. “This is a special one. As an immigrant who came to the country . . . it’s important.”

Samyra Miller, 22, a Harvard graduating senior and the first marshal who is helping organize commencement events, said even a virtual event holds significance.

Miller will be back home in New Orleans watching on TV with her parents and grandmother, whom she hasn’t hugged in a year, participating in Harvard’s virtual event.

“I have accomplished such a big thing in the middle of a global pandemic,” Miller said. “To be able to celebrate that in the middle of everything means a lot to me.”

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.