Commencement 2021: The hybrid edition

Planning a Commencement ceremony for hundreds of medical students and guests is no small feat in a good year. Doing so amid a pandemic, however, is nothing short of Herculean.

“I have 450-some email messages relating to this year’s Commencement,” says Alicia Lynch, M.A., director of student affairs, scrolling through her emailbox. “We’ve always been mindful about providing information and updates to students about Commencement, but for this year’s event, we started getting questions in September 2020.” 

Understandably: The pandemic changed life as we know it, including its events. Last year’s Commencement and related events all occurred virtually, but for this year, given the ever-changing situation, the University surveyed graduating students in January on whether they would attend an in-person ceremony. The results sparked a plan to offer a hybrid event, both virtual and in-person at the Iowa Events Center, downtown Des Moines. 

That prompted the team effort always required to put on Commencement, albeit in new ways. Keynote speaker Michael Osterholm, Ph.D., M.P.H., director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota and a member of President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 Advisory Board, had to record his speech. Information technology services worked with Lynch’s team to create surveys to collect RSVPs from students on whether they would attend virtually or in-person. All graduates also were encouraged to submit photos of themselves in their regalia to be shown at the end of the ceremony. 

“There were a lot of shared drives between DMU and the Iowa Events Center, and there was a lot of pivoting going on,” Lynch says. 

That included deciding who would get to attend in-person. Initially, only graduates were to be permitted, but as people began receiving coronavirus vaccines in early spring, more questions rolled in. Based on CDC guidelines and in consultation with the Iowa Events Center, DMU made the decision on May 17 to allow each graduate up to two guests. Class of 2021 members had until May 20 to change their RSVP from virtual to in-person. 

“Keep in mind Commencement took place on May 28,” Lynch says. “Everyone was required to wear masks and be socially distanced, so we had to revise the floor plan and redo the seating chart.” 

Ultimately, 243 graduates opted to walk across the stage for a celebratory fist bump with DMU President and CEO Angela L. Walker Franklin, Ph.D. The online event was viewed by more than 3,300 screens in at least 12 countries. And other than having to remind some in-person attendees to don masks, Lynch says there were no major snafus. The effort gave DMU a sort of playbook for its Aug. 27 White Coat Ceremony, for which masks were required and students were allowed up to four guests. 

“As a medical/health sciences institution, we adhere to health guidelines, but COVID robbed all of us of so many things,” Lynch says. “Our students have worked so hard for so many years, including before they enrolled at DMU, and Commencement is the culmination of that hard work.”

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