Pomp & Pandemic

Nearly 2,000 grads to get diplomas

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

It’s the season of diplomas, hugs and handshakes in Moorhead, where education is our leading industry. And though hugs and handshakes will still be off limits, the diplomas will soon be ready … nearly 2,000 of them.

Like most every memory of the past 13 months, Graduation 2021 will go into the history books with an asterisk. Starting with Cobber graduates on Sunday, young men and women will leave their campuses with as much pomp and ceremony as those planning the annual ceremonies can provide for them – while insuring that they and their well-wishers can celebrate safely.

Higher education is first on the calendar. Starting with Concordia on Sunday, undergraduates and graduate students are symbolically presented with their diplomas over the next two weeks. (The real printed documents come later.) Whether in person, like the Cobbers, or via streaming video at Minnesota State University Moorhead and M State, they’ll be able to share the high point of their education for years to come as an unlikely anecdote of a most unusual year.

Moorhead High School follows a month later. It’s the only one of the schools that plans to have a somewhat traditional in-person event, albeit in a unique location with a sharply limited audience on hand.

“This is the third time we’ve done this,” says Kristi Monson of MSUM, referring to previous video ceremonies in May and December 2020. “We’re all getting better at it. But everyone sure hopes we can do the next one in person.”

Concordia College

Dean Susan Larson says most of her school’s 394 undergraduates and 15 graduate students will take part in person in Memorial Auditorium Sunday. The group has been split into halves, with health professions, chemistry, biology and business majors at 10 a.m. and the rest of the College of Arts and Sciences at 2 p.m.

The graduates will don traditional caps and gowns and walk across the stage to accept their diplomas, she says. But that’s as far as caution and Department of Health guidelines let them go. The graduates cannot have guests. Nor will they be part of the traditional procession past the college’s faculty. Most speakers, including keynote Bishop Elizabeth Eaton of the ELCA, will appear on video rather than in person.

Faculty and families will watch the stripped-down ceremony on livestreamed video. An edited production with all graduates and speakers will be posted online afterwards.

“We know this isn’t the same as celebrating with friends and family, but it’s an improvement over last year, when graduation was all virtual,” Larson says. “We’re excited they can at least hear the names read and walk onstage in their caps and gowns.” She says some departments have planned small receptions this week, and she has heard of families meeting up afterwards in parks. “They’ll find other ways of connecting – at other times and in other ways.

“This is just another of those Covid-19 adaptations, mitigating risk and being responsible. It’s not the same, but we want it to be a memorable experience.”

M State

The four campuses of Minnesota State Community and Technical College – Moorhead, Detroit Lakes, Fergus Falls and Wadena – are graduating some 600 students at 7 p.m. Friday, May 7, including 300 who have completed programs here. Their ceremony will be entirely virtual, despite the somewhat easing pandemic.

“There was a lot of uncertainty about where we’d be when we started planning at the end of January,” Karen Reilly says. She is M State’s associate dean of marketing and outreach. “So it will be almost exactly the same as it was in 2020, except with an improved format – the same speeches, the same presentation of graduates and their degrees.”

She describes this year’s live video production as “a more robust experience,” however. Students have been invited to upload their photos and, if they choose, a brief statement. Some will be shown in a virtual cap and gown, courtesy of a filter designed by M State, and they’ll hear “Pomp and Circumstance” to cap off their big day. All is being videotaped ahead of time on the Fergus Falls campus for broadcast at the appointed hour.

The graduates, she says, have adapted well to Covid conventions. “They’re resilient. After all their hard work, these are proud moments. You can feel that pride even when you’re watching virtually. What we all miss is the celebration of their friends and families. Virtually is good, but the excitement just isn’t the same.”


Minnesota State University’s 600 undergraduates and 170 graduate students, too, will be recognized from a distance. Four smaller ceremonies are planned: the College of Arts & Humanities at 10 a.m. Thursday, May 13, and the College of Business, Analytics & Communication at 2 p.m.; and, on Friday, May 14, the College of Education & Human Services at 10 a.m. and the College of Science, Health & the Environment at 2 p.m.

Kristi Monson says the program follows those of more familiar days, with slide shows highlighting veterans, honors graduates, and those who are the part of the first generation of their family to attend college. Graduates have been asked to submit photos to be shown as their name and degree are announced.

As for the family photos that inevitably memorialize each grad’s big day, some members of the faculty are plotting ways to make them special. While all details haven’t been ironed out, she hints that 6-foot freestanding letters are on order to plant on the campus to provide a special setting for snapshots.

While the experience isn’t what previous classes remember, she does see some benefits for the remote ceremonies, which can be watched live or in edited form on the university website. “Families and friends can watch the ceremonies streamed live or come back to them later.” It will be an unusual tale for grads to tell their children and grandchildren someday … she hopes, one that won’t have to be repeated for a fourth time next December.

Moorhead High School

Moorhead High School’s 400-some cap-and-gown-clad seniors are due to receive their diplomas in person on the afternoon of June 6. But that’s one of the few things that will be entirely traditional, says Principal Dave Lawrence.

For one thing, consider the venue: not Jim Gotta Stadium or the nearby auditorium, but Scheels Arena in Fargo. Finding a location that could accommodate grads and their guests – and stay within Department of Health guidelines for distancing – was a challenge. “We didn’t want to split the class into halves or thirds, like some high schools are doing,” he says. “The arena seats 5,700 to 7,000 under normal circumstances, but ‘normal’ doesn’t apply with social distancing.” Prior bookings for Graduation Day ruled out the FargoDome; the lack of an indoor back-up facility in case of rain made the MHS stadium unworkable.

The number of guests permitted for each graduate is still up in the air, depending on how seating works out. Lawrence says admitting four is the goal, but the limit may have to be reduced to three. For those who can’t be fitted in, the show will be livestreamed by Spuds.TV.

“We want to give our kids and families a good ceremony and good memories,” he emphasizes. “We’re going to make it as good as we possibly can.”

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