For public relations major Emily Stehlik and most other seniors, graduation was something to look forward to.
As a soon-to-be first generation college grad, she has worked four internships, worked 20-plus hours a week, got involved in multiple organizations and became president of her sorority,
“I did all that because when I thought about walking across that stage, I didn’t want any regrets,” she said. “I wanted that feeling of recognition while having my folks around me thinking, ‘OK, you did it all. You gave it 110%.’”
Now, she might not be walking at all. Instead, the most she might get is her diploma by mail in the summer.
That’s because Plattsburgh State announced spring commencement is being pushed to December due to the coronavirus outbreak in an email sent to all students Tuesday.
With so much uncertainty surrounding post-grad life, Stehlik feels like she, along with many other graduates, won’t be able to attend their ceremonies because of jobs, graduate school and other reasons.
Stehlik first heard the news surrounded by the eight other seniors she lives with in the living room of her off-campus apartment. One by one, they checked their phones to read the email by President Alexander Enyedi.
“I just felt myself start crying,” she said. “I was thinking about how much my senior year didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to.”
Stehlik’s sadness turned to anger, which turned into a petition that has gathered more than 1,100 online signatures, asking PSU to hold the class of 2020’s commencement in August like SUNY Oneonta, which is currently scheduling its spring commencement to be held Aug. 29.
“The school has told students that in eight months they’ll have to travel and take off of work to get the feeling of walking across the stage,” the petition reads. “The school has been inconsiderate by pushing this off for their convenience. Seniors have already had to mourn the loss of their last semester in school.”
Stehlik’s petition resonated with Jenna Sharp, a senior social work major. She shared the petition on Facebook, Snapchat, the student digest.
“I even posted it on LinkedIn,” she said.
Sharp is attending New York University for grad school after graduation. The thought of traveling four and a half hours upstate amidst December weather to celebrate her graduation from eight months ago didn’t sit well with her.
“To have it eight months later, it sort of takes away the magic and that excitement we had for this entire semester because everything has been ripped away,” Sharp said.
“They would rather do it in winter out of convenience. How special is that supposed to feel? That’s basically saying, ‘Hey, you don’t get your shot. Thank you for giving us your money. Have a nice life.”
Senior nursing major Tara O’Dell, who also signed Stehlik’s petition, liked how SUNY Oneonta is trying to hold commencement earlier, even if it will have to postpone it in the end.
“It really upset me how other schools were giving the opportunity and being hopeful unlike Plattsburgh, where they kind of just went straight to December and took the easy way out almost.”
Stehlik, Sharp and O’Dell each doubt they’ll be able to make it to commencement in December.
While students have been pointing fingers at PSU, Enyedi has been placing the blame on COVID-19.
“If anyone is making the decisions, it’s the virus,” he said.
Enyedi said he sympathizes with the seniors. He was a first generation college student himself and said the two memories that stick with him the most from his years as an undergrad was the day he received his acceptance letter and the day he graduated.
“I share the sadness. I was almost tempted to sign [the petition] myself,” Enyedi said. “I wish we could do this, but we can’t unfortunately.”
He said PSU could not hold a commencement if the possibility of spreading the coronavirus existed.
“Imagine 3,000 people packed [in the Field House] sitting inches from one another. Percerperation. Peers. Handshakes. Hugging,” Enyedi said. “And out of the 3,000 people present, maybe 100 people are carrying the virus. Guess what happens? Two weeks later, we have a bunch of sick people, but not just there, but on our campus. We’re going to have faculty there. We’re going to have staff there.”
Enyedi said science, history and the current state of the pandemic have also been driving factors behind PSU’s decisions.
The Clinton County Health Department expressed its support of PSU’s decision to move commencement to December.
“Though I am sure there have been students and families wishing to hold this Commencement as early as August this year, at this time it is critically important that all of your graduating students and their families understand that there are too many unknowns regarding the future progression of the coronavirus in our North Country region of New York State,” Director of Public Health John Kanoza wrote in a letter to Enyedi. “Based on current epidemiological modeling predictions of the coronavirus trajectory, mass gatherings of 1,000 or more, such as a graduation event, are not advised even during the summer months.”
Enyedi also addressed concerns among students who believe PSU will lump together all students in one commencement.
“I think it’s going to likely be two large commencements for the class of 2020, assuming we can fit everyone in. And if we need to go to three sessions, we’ll go to three sessions,” he said.
On top of holding commencement in December, PSU is also planning on scheduling events for the class of 2020 during homecoming in the fall Oct. 16-17. Enyedi is also considering commemorating the original commencement day for seniors.
Other than holding commencement in December, Stehlik, Sharp and O’Dell also had issues with how PSU did not seek seniors’ opinions before making decisions on their commencement.
“The reason anyone is here is the students,” Stehlik said. “We’re the reason SUNY Plattsburgh runs. And at the end of the day, college is a business. We’re the consumers. So wouldn’t you want the consumers’ opinions?”
O’Dell said: “It’s saddening to think that they didn’t involve the seniors who worked so hard for the past four years and had no involvement in the final decision to move our commencement to December.”
Enyedi said he spoke with Student Association President Rudaba Ahmed before sending the email informing all students about the move, but the decision was already made by then.
For Sharp and other seniors, they’re looking at a graduation that’s much different than what they envisioned before a pandemic.
“We just want the moment that was promised to us when we were seniors in high school,” Sharp said.
Email Fernando Alba at firstname.lastname@example.org