With graduations virtual, Chicago college students dream of in-person, multi-school ceremony at Soldier Field

Columbia College Chicago students hope to host their own in-person graduation ceremony — and have invited students from schools across the city.

SHARE With graduations virtual, Chicago college students dream of in-person, multi-school ceremony at Soldier Field

Alice Scharf (from left), Nathan Branch and Jahmelah Miller are the organizers of the #Commenceanyways, citywide graduation event for college students.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

With only weeks before Chicago colleges face yet another graduation period during the pandemic, many schools have again made plans for virtual ceremonies this spring.

That’s led some students to take matters into their own hands.

Three Columbia College Chicago students have launched a campaign called #CommenceAnyways to hold an in-person ceremony at Soldier Field — which would not involve campus administration in any way.

“I’ve learned and grown so much during my time being a college student, and it’s really this moment to be celebrated,” said organizer Nathan Branch.

Branch, along with classmates Jahmelah Miller and Alice Scharf, started the initiative as an event for CCC students, but have since opened up their Eventbrite ticket page for all Chicago-area graduating students.

According to the organizers, this would be the first in-person citywide graduation event in Chicago for college students, although last year, the city hosted a citywide virtual graduation for high school seniors.

“We set out to be the change we wanted to see,” Miller said. “After a few weeks of getting feedback we decided not only Columbia students deserved this effort but all college students. We have all worked so hard and deserve this moment.”

The campaign involves a social media push for donations on a Gofundme page. In a video, several Chicago students expressed why they find the campaign important.

“As a first generation immigrant, graduation means a lot to me and my family,” said Bichoy Boutros, fashion design major at CCC. “So thank you to #commenceanyways for making that happen.”

Soldier Field is open to hosting the event, but Branch said they have not signed a formal contract yet. They are seeking at least 400 students to attend the event and have a fundraising goal of $15,000; as of Monday they were about a third of the way toward their fundraising goal. Currently it costs $42 for a ticket and four guest tickets. If they meet their goals by Friday, they plan to host the commencement on May 16.

The Illinois Department of Public Health and the Illinois State Board of Education put out a list of recommendations and guidance for hosting high school and college graduations last year. The IDPH strongly encouraged that in-person ceremonies be avoided; however, the guidance has not been updated since last June. State officials did not respond to a request for comment.

In addition to Columbia, Chicago-area schools planning to hold virtual events include Loyola, Northwestern, Northeastern Illinois, Illinois Institute of Technology and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Even Chicago schools offering some in-person options for graduates are greatly limiting who can come — and whether guests will be allowed.

The University of Chicago will be holding diploma ceremonies June 9, but the event will be open to students only. Family and friends will be able to watch virtually. The school has discouraged parents and guests from visiting campus during the graduation season.

DePaul University will be holding a commencement virtually on May 22, but the school will host several outdoor activities to commemorate the occasion in May. They are still planning the events, but have said that they will follow the city’s COVID guidelines.

The University of Illinois at Chicago will be holding a graduation virtually on May 8, but will be hosting small in-person graduation experiences where students can invite up to two guests.

In other parts of Illinois, however, some of the larger state schools, like Illinois State and Northern Illinois universities, plan to hold in-person ceremonies.

But the lack of local in-person celebrations and restrictions on bringing guests to the limited events are why the Columbia students still hope more grads will sign up for #CommenceAnyways.

“When the students email us you can hear the excitement and gratitude in their message,” Miller said. “I want to feel the joy in the stadium of accomplishment from students and family.”

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