Celebrating graduation milestones during a pandemic

Updated: Jan 10, 2021


Typically, mid-May to early June is marked by graduation ceremonies for 5th and 8th grade children, High School Seniors, and College Graduates pursuing Bachelor’s, Master’s, Doctoral, and Professional Degrees. This year, however, a worldwide pandemic has resulted in the delay or adaptation of these rites of passage, leaving graduates and their families frustrated, sad, and, in some cases, downright irate. As a scientist and therapist, I began to wonder what the impact of missing out on a milestone like graduation could be and if there is any way to minimize negative outcomes.


Diving into the scientific literature in search of the purpose and psychological impact of graduation ceremonies was not easy. Much of the literature that specifically covers graduation is written by anthropologists(2), not psychologists, and focuses heavily on broader cultural meanings, not the impact on the psychological well-being of the individual. I drew on my own experiences of graduation ceremonies, hoping to identify themes that would lead to the research I was looking for.


I attended 2 out of 4 of my graduation ceremonies: One for High School graduation and one for my Master’s Degree in Athletic Counseling from Springfield College in Massachusetts. My Bachelor’s degree and Doctoral degree universities did not have ceremonies during the semesters I graduated (Winter and Summer). By the time an opportunity to attend a ceremony arrived (a semester or year later), the initial graduation excitement had worn off and the exorbitant cost of traveling back to the school made attending undesirable. For both of the ceremonies I attended, I recall having the awareness that I was not attending the ceremony for myself, but for my parents and grandparents. This is not to say that I gleaned nothing from the ceremonies for myself. When I think about what was most important to me, it was the recognition from my family and my professors that I had accomplished something difficult or extraordinary and that I was moving on to a different phase in life.


Due to the importance of social distancing during the ongoing pandemic, we may search for alternative ways to provide recognition of graduates’ hard work while we wait for the opportunity to hold more formal ceremonies. If there could be any silver lining to the delay of graduation ceremonies, perhaps it is that graduates actually have time to reflect on what this accomplishment means for them, something they may not have time to recognize when the ceremony occurs the day after their last final exam. As families search for alternative ways to recognize their graduates, they may be surprised to find that alternative graduation ceremonies have been occurring for years. Perhaps we could take a page from high school seniors who are home-schooled or college graduates who complete online degrees, like my twin brother, who finished up his undergraduate degree through Arizona State University’s online program. While there can be no equivalent to marching across a stage in front of a packed stadium or auditorium, to the sounds of celebratory cheers and Pomp and Circumstance, it is certainly important to do SOMETHING to mark your accomplishment. As you begin to consider your options, here are some recommendations backed by the scientific literature.

Create a space for your celebration.

You may be quite relieved to hear that there is no scientific evidence suggesting that missing a formal graduation ceremony could be the cause of serious psychological harm. That means, you can design your own celebration without worry! The important thing is that you are able to share this celebration with those who have supported you along the way. Social support is an important part of academic success.(1) Pick a day, time, and location (e.g., real or virtual) for your celebration. Following the guidelines set by the CDC for the current stage of the pandemic, invite your “pack” to share in your celebration. If you’ve been quarantining with family, friends, or other loved-ones, invite them to your celebration. Invite others remotely, using one of the many platforms now available for video conferencing with groups. Decorate your immediate surroundings.


Design your own ceremony

One of the roles of graduation ceremonies is the ritual, which has remained fairly standard across generations, cultures, and level of degree (2). Rituals serve many purposes, including creating a gateway to another stage of life, also known as a rite of passage (2). It may be helpful to explore your own goals for the ceremony as well as those who may be attending. Will your graduation be one of saying goodbye to the previous life-stage while you prepare for the next? Will you recognize others who have helped you get where you are? Will you ask for advice for moving forward? Will you pretend to accept a diploma, give a speech, give social-distant hand-shakes?


Cultivate a narrative that will facilitate your resilience and future success.

The stories we tell about ourselves and the meaning of events in our lives can influence our personalities and long-term outcomes(3). This is most important during adolescence and emerging adulthood, affecting many who are graduating at this time(3). Allowing for self-reflection and the adoption of a positive script about the meaning of your alternative celebration (e.g., helping to keep vulnerable people from getting gravely ill) can help this sacrifice become a source of pride and honor. The creation of an intentionally positive script may help produce long-term happiness and a positive life-narrative(4).


Allow yourself to experience something truly positive, like the compliments and congratulatory remarks from friends and family.

One very interesting scientific journal article found that experiencing positive events, like a graduation ceremony, as enjoyable are dependent on your self-esteem and symptoms of anxiety or depression(5). That is, if you are prone to negativity, even positive life events may be experienced as negative(5). While this is something that’s difficult to change overnight, you can try the experiment of accepting all praise and congratulations without outward protest during your self-designed graduation ceremony.


While none of this may replace the real thing, perhaps you’ll find that creating a celebration of your own helps to mark the occasion in a way that the more formal ceremonies can’t. Wherever you are and however you celebrate, congratulations on a job well done, graduates!



References

1. Budescu, M. M. & Silverman, L. (2016). Kinship Support and Academic Efficacy Among College Students: A Cross-Sectional Examination. Journal of Child & Family Studies, 25(6), 1789–1801. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-016-0359-z

2. Magolda, P.M. (2003). Saying Good-Bye: An Anthropological Examination of a Commencement Ritual. Journal of College Student Development 44(6), 779-796. doi:10.1353/csd.2003.0073.

3. laicu, C., & Voicu, C. (2013). Supporting Adolescent Identity Development through Personal Narratives. Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences, 92, 1026–1032. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sbspro.2013.08.794

4. Berntsen, D., Rubin, D. C., & Siegler, I. C. (2011). Two versions of life: Emotionally negative and positive life events have different roles in the organization of life story and identity. Emotion, 11(5), 1190–1201. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0024940

5. Shimizu M, & Pelham BW. (2004). The unconscious cost of good fortune: implicit and explicit self-esteem, positive life events, and health. Health Psychology, 23(1), 101–105.

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