Senior committee looks to on-campus commencement and Senior Week celebration

By RILEY BOARD

NICK GARBER
Conditions permitting, the college plans to conduct a three-to-five day senior celebration in mid-to-late August to replace Senior Week.

UPDATE: Wednesday, April 22

The Senior Committee is still hoping to hold an in-person Senior Week-style celebration in August, despite Monday’s news that all Middlebury Summer Programs have been cancelled or will be held remotely.

“The cancellations of in-person summer programs have not affected our discussions about when to hold the in-person celebration,” Vanessa Young, one of the committee’s members, wrote in an email to The Campus on Monday. “We are still hoping to bring everyone back to campus in late August, but are, of course, keeping our options open if that becomes unfeasible.”

The committee is prepared to re-evaulate as needed, though. In her email, Young wrote that since the Senior Week event would occur after many summer programs would have ended their on-campus stay, it’s “hard to say how those cancellations will impact the scheduling of the celebration.”

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Middlebury’s senior celebration this year will be unorthodox, but the members of the Senior Committee are making efforts to ensure that the event will be both as celebratory and accessible as possible. 

President Laurie Patton announced two weeks ago that the college will be conducting two commencement ceremonies for the class of 2020: one virtual ceremony on May 24, the original graduation date, and one in-person ceremony at an undetermined date accompanied by a Senior Week-style celebration.

The Senior Committee hopes that the latter celebration — ideally a three-to-five-day long event — will replicate a typical Senior Week and will occur in mid-to-late August, CDC guidelines permitting. They are also working with the SGA and administration to provide seniors with financial assistance for potential travel and lodging costs. 

“This senior class wants — and deserves — to be celebrated,” members of the Senior Committee wrote in an email to The Campus. Committee members include Olivia Reed, Sandhya Sewnauth, Jack Litowitz, Vanessa Young, Emily Kerstein, Steph Miller, Julia Sinton and Catherine Blayze, all members of the classes of 2020 and 2020.5. 

The committee normally plays no role in the planning of commencement, and is only responsible for Senior Week and other senior traditions, but the administration reached out to ask their opinion on a dual ceremony. 

“The virtual ceremony is really important to hold as well,” they said in support of the proposal. “Some of our classmates may be unable to join for an in-person ceremony, so it is important to have both closure and a celebration that benefits 100% of the class.” 

The committee surveyed seniors about their preferences regarding both the virtual and in-person ceremonies. Results showed that most seniors would prefer for the in-person event to take place late this summer or during the 2020–2021 academic year.

COURTESY OF THE SENIOR COMMITTEE
A screenshot from the survey the Senior Committee sent out to all seniors earlier this month.

One student proposed a virtual tour of Laurie Patton’s house as a fun component of the online commencement in May, which the committee says they’re working on. Members are meeting with Director of Events Management Jen Erwin on Friday to make some decisions about what the virtual ceremony will look like.

The committee says that, if the event happens this summer, they are hoping to house students in the rooms they lived in this past semester. 

Holding the in-person event will also be an important way for the college to support local businesses in Middlebury, which have been hit hard by Covid-19 restrictions. “It’s the right thing to do for the class of 2020, but we’re going to need to do this for our own community,” said David Provost, the executive vice president for finance and administration. “For the restaurants, the inns: anything we can do to bring people back to the town, that’s really important.” 

“Luckily, the vendors and companies we were working with — all of them being local — were extremely understanding of our situation and ensured they would continue to work with us, whatever that would end up meaning,” the committee said. “It’s important to us that we maintain this relationship with local businesses and support them as much as we can during this time.”

The committee and the administration are committed to bringing seniors back for this event, and making that financially possible. The process for financial assistance has not been finalized yet, but the budget will potentially be drawn from the Senior Committee’s budget, additional funding from SGA and the administration’s Student Emergency Fund. They are also considering redirecting the funds for the Senior Class Gift, which was intended to go towrad Energy2028, although fundraising numbers for that project were already low.

Kenshin Cho ’20, Director of the SGA Finance Committee, said that they can, “comfortably commit at least $30,000, which is approximately what [the Senior Committee] has in unused funds for this year.” 

The Finance Committee has not been able to calculate the full potential contribution yet because they are still in the process of pooling unused student organization funds from the year. They will make an assessment after hearing a proposal from the Senior Committee. 

Peer institutions and other Vermont colleges have taken similar steps to address remote commencements. Bates College and Trinity College have both scheduled virtual ceremonies, and promised to hold in-person ceremonies after the 2020–21 academic year. Tufts University originally scheduled a virtual ceremony, but after student push back announced that they would hold an in-person ceremony when it is safe to do so.