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Illinois universities plan in-person commencements — and 2020 grads are invited, too

After holding virtual events last year, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and ISU, among others, plan limited events on campus this year.

2020 graduate Annie Czerwinski poses on UIUC’s campus in lieu of an in-person graduation ceremony. This year, as colleges invite 2020 graduates back for in-person commencements, last years graduating students like Czerwinski will be returning for these ceremonies.
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Annie Czerwinski is eagerly awaiting a chance to walk the stage in a cap and gown in a commencement ceremony at the University of Illinois next month — something that she has been anticipating for years.

Czerwinski, however, has been waiting longer than most students taking part in such events this spring: She actually got her degree in molecular and cellular biology last May. But because the pandemic canceled last year’s in-person commencement, the state’s flagship school is allowing any 2020 graduate to come to the campus in Urbana-Champaign and be recognized along with 2021 grads.

“Honestly, it was really sad,” Czerwinski said of missing out on a formal in-person program last year. “I had been looking forward to commencement for so long.”

But the new plans mean Czerwinski, who plans to go to optometry school in August, will be able to travel to Urbana-Champaign from her home in suburban Homer Glen “with my parents and sisters and my boyfriend and they will watch me walk across the stage. Even if it is just for 15 minutes, I am really excited.”

Schools open up football stadiums

In addition to UIUC, some of the state’s other large public universities — including Illinois State, the University of Illinois at Chicago, Northern, Southern and Eastern — have invited the class of 2020 to return to their campuses to graduate this year. Although most schools are offering a scaled down program from years past, the move is a small step toward normalcy as the pandemic stretches into its second year.

At EIU, which will be holding graduation in the football stadium May 8, officials are limiting attendance to 20% of capacity. Students participating will receive four to six tickets for guests depending on which EIU college they attend. All participants and guests are required to wear masks and seating will be socially distanced. They are nixing traditions like shaking the dean’s hand to minimize contact as well.

“It’s a big accomplishment, and they’ve worked hard for this day,” said Amber May, associate director for alumni services at EIU. “Just the fact that we are able to give it to them, I think everyone is appreciative and excited about it.”

Southern Illinois University will livestream its in-person graduation on the school’s YouTube channel. SIU spokesman Kim Rendfeld said the school decided to hold in-person events after getting overwhelming feedback from students in favor of it.

Officials plan to host multiple graduation ceremonies to reduce risks to participants from May 7-9. Each graduate will have access to up to four guest tickets. Social distancing and masks will also be required for all students and guests.

“Based on the information we have now, we believe that we can offer a safe in-person ceremony,” Rendfeld said. “We’re hosting more ceremonies to allow for that proper social distancing and to keep attendance at a safe level.”

Annie Czerwinski, pictured with her family when she graduated (virtually) from the University of Illinois last year, is planning to return to campus for an in-person event this spring.
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Students petition U. of I.

At UIUC, the decision to allow last year’s graduates to walk this year stemmed from a petition — signed by nearly 10,000 members of the class of 2020 — imploring the school to reschedule their graduation until in-person events could be held safely.

“We deserve a commencement for the class of 2020,” the petition penned last year states. “Virtual celebrations or a full cancellation is an insult to a class that’s worked [so] hard to get here in the face of such adversity. Wait until the pandemic slows down and things get better, then have our commencement. Regalia, ceremony and all. We deserve it, whenever it may be.”

The school’s main event for its 5,600 2021 graduates will still be virtual, on May 15. But 2020 and 2021 grads can bring up to four guests to a private, 15-minute “stage crossing experience” at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, scheduled by appointment May 10-17. Graduates will wear caps, gowns and tassels and have their names read aloud as they cross the stage. Professional photographers will be on site for portraits.

The school says that 850 2020 grads have signed up.

One of them, Paulina Maczuga, who majored in management and information systems, is now a graduate student at Roosevelt University in Chicago. Even though it won’t be the same as the full-scale commencements that took place before the pandemic, she’s eager to go back to campus from her home in Crystal Lake to take part in at least some of the traditions.

“It’s important to stay grateful and to stay happy that there is some opportunity there,” said Maczuga. “To be honest, there are some parts that would make it really special that we will not be able to get.”

For students like 23-year-old Taskeen Khan, who graduated with a degree in integrated biology last year, an in-person event did not seem like a big deal until she left and realized what she had missed.

“A year out, I realized that I don’t have any of those graduation photos in front of any of the buildings on campus or pictures of my cap and gown on campus, and I realized that I wanted that,” Khan said. “So that’s what made me sign up for the new graduation, even though that is not something I had originally felt disappointed I was missing.”

Khan said she is excited to bring her family to see her cross the stage.

“I feel like it is a milestone that is nice to have something to mark it,” Khan said. “It’s nice to have just a day oriented around it and have photos with your family from that special occasion.”

Decorations for Annie Czerwinski’s graduation celebration — last year, at her home in Homer Glen.
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