Leilim Chang-Salazar loves graduations. The graduates’ sense of accomplishment, their families’ pride, the traditions, the pomp and circumstance—“I love it. It just makes me cry, even if it’s not even mine,” she says. A 2020 graduate of Albertus Magnus College, Chang-Salazar had worked as an usher at Albertus commencements when she was an undergraduate, so naturally she’d looked forward to her own graduation. Then the pandemic hit. Many local students were already on spring break. They never got to return to say goodbye to their schools or their friends.

Still, Albertus grads like Chang-Salazar are among the luckiest local members of the class of 2020. They’ll get a full ceremony alongside their 2021 peers on May 16, held as per tradition on the steps of the college’s Rosary Hall. They’ll also have the chance to spend Senior Week on campus and participate in traditions like the annual Pons Party (honoring a metaphorical “pons” or “bridge” to post-grad life), an awards ceremony and a baccalaureate mass—even though, for some, life has already made that impractical. “As the year has gone by, people’s lives have moved on,” interim vice president for enrollment management and marketing Andrea Kovacs says, citing graduate school and job commitments that will keep some 2020 grads away. Those who attend can bring up to four guests, who would normally be seated directly behind their hosts but will watch instead via jumbo screens on the nearby athletic field. “We’re a small college, and that works in our favor,” Kovacs says. “We’ll still get to enjoy the day and all of the tradition that goes with it. It just looks a tiny bit different—but nonetheless exciting.”

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Commencement protocols and traditions have been upended at every local university. As administrators straighten their caps and figure out how to honor not only this year’s graduates but also last year’s, each of their schools has come up with a different approach. Like Albertus, both Quinnipiac University and Southern Connecticut State University are welcoming back the class of 2020 for in-person commencements—Quinnipiac in a separate ceremony the week after the class of 2021 graduates and Southern by wrapping them into this year’s School of Business graduation, the smallest of five separate ceremonies to be held outdoors on Southern’s Jess Dow Field.

Up to 550 graduates with two guests each can fit on the field with social distancing protocols, says Patrick Dilger, director of integrated communications and marketing at Southern. Between a quarter and a third of last year’s class—about 320 students—have said they’ll be back, he reports. For some, life has moved on, and for others, Dilger says, it may just feel too soon. “I think for some people, even despite the governor’s announcement… about the lifting of restrictions, it’s still going to be early in the new normal.” The number of 2021 grads and graduate students walking this year is down as well, he says. Regardless, all names will be called and degrees conferred. Those who don’t feel comfortable attending in person can watch a livestream of the event, something most schools have incorporated this year.

The University of New Haven will hold its commencement for the class of 2021 on May 17, while the class of 2020, which graduated virtually last July, will finally get its ceremony in October in conjunction with homecoming weekend. “There was lots of disappointment that they weren’t able to have it on campus or an in-person ceremony” last year, says Doug Whiting, associate vice president for marketing and public relations. “Some have indicated that they’ve moved on, but we’re hearing from a fair number” who plan to come back in the fall. It’s been a challenging year for this year’s UNH seniors as well, says 2021 class president Amanda Pappas. “Something that was really hard for me was knowing what the campus community used to be like and trying to find ways to bring that sense of community back even in the virtual environments,” she says.

Among the most common new protocols at many schools are COVID tests or proof of full vaccination for students and guests attending live; seating in family pods; smaller, shorter ceremonies intended to limit contact and exposure and, of course, masks. And, although many graduates will process across stages to receive their diplomas, there will be no hand-shaking this year—or, possibly, ever again. UNH will offer onsite COVID testing over graduation weekend for those who can’t get a test at home, Whiting says, adding, “It’s logistically challenging, as you can imagine.” Other UNH logistics include foregoing a procession into the Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, where the ceremony will be held, and taking measures to “limit the time that everybody is together,” he says.

Of all the local schools, Yale University has adopted the most conservative approach, holding a students-only in-person graduation for the class of 2021 and putting off the class of 2020 for another day. “When we were required to cancel Commencement last year at the beginning of the pandemic, we promised that you would return to campus to celebrate your remarkable accomplishments when it was safe to do so,” wrote Kimberly M. Goff-Crews, secretary and vice president for university life, in a March letter to last year’s far-flung senior class. “Although public health conditions are improving, a safe return is not possible this year.” Families and guests of Yale’s 2021 grads will attend the ceremonies, to be held May 22-24, virtually and will not be allowed on campus.

All of this year’s plans are still contingent on COVID numbers, with infections stubbornly continuing even in the face of widespread vaccination in Connecticut. And with outdoor ceremonies and no backup indoor locations, there’s the weather to watch. At Albertus, Kovacs and others have their fingers crossed for dry skies for several outdoor events. Barring extreme weather, Dilger says Southern will go forward rain or shine, with ponchos on hand if necessary.

Students Pappas and Chang-Salazar are both grateful for their schools’ creative planning and commitment to in-person commencements. “Now that it’s happening, at least I feel like we appreciate it more,” Chang-Salazar says. Pappas sees a silver lining around all that her class has been through: “This year has definitely taught a lot of us how to be resilient, which is a very beneficial trait to have,” she says. “Being able to bounce back and getting through all this chaos… will definitely set us up for success.”

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image features Leilim Chang-Salazar outside Rosary Hall.

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