Commencement 2021 Planned for In-Person with COVID-19 Restrictions

On March 23, President Jenifer K. Ward officially announced the possibility of an in-person commencement ceremony, determined by the commencement planning team, the COVID Response Team (CRT), and Ward. The class of 2021 will be able to gather in person for the ceremony in the Center for Faith and Life Main Hall on Sunday, May 16, under specific COVID-19 protocols.

Attendees of the in-person ceremony in the CFL will include graduating seniors and a small stage party: the president, the Board of Regents, the dean of college, and other cabinet members. Chris Norton (‘14) will give the commencement speech, which will be recorded. There will also be recorded music from the past year.

The ceremony will be in-person for the graduates, each of whom is able to invite two guests to campus. For other attendees, it will be live-streamed for extended family members and friends. Guests will need to RSVP in advance using a form that will be sent to graduating seniors. Registered guests will be assigned in advance to a classroom on campus, where they may view a live stream of the ceremony. In addition to following mask mandates and social distancing rules, all participants in the in-person ceremony will be required to take a COVID-19 test the week of commencement, unless an individual has been fully vaccinated for COVID-19 or has been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the past 90 days.

According to the cabinet members, this plan meets COVID-19 restrictions and safety precautions. Vice President for Mission and Communication Brad Chamberlain shared his insights about the decision-making process of the in-person commencement.

“The situation is different from [last year],” Chamberlain said. “Based upon the protocol that we have on campus, the ability that we’ve been able to live together and study together this past year, also knowing that students are on campus, from the beginning, our thinking was ‘how can we safely have an in-person commencement as opposed to a virtual commencement?’ We came together around the plan that allows us to have an in-person experience for the seniors, allowing them one last moment before [they] become alumni.”

Director of Campus Programming Kristen Underwood shared her thoughts on the importance of the commencement ceremony being in person.

“Luther values a sense of community so much,” Underwood said. “That’s something that we all hold really dear, and recognizing those big moments need to be acknowledged. And because we are a community as we’ve been together so much recently, being able to do that in person is an irreplaceable experience.”

Emma Estenson (‘21) shared her hopes and gratitude for the in-person ceremony. Like many seniors, Estenson has been overwhelmed by the sense of lossed time and normalcy, but she looks forward to being able to still have a graduation ceremony as a way to properly celebrate her graduating class for all of the accomplishments they’ve made over the past four years.

“I’m really thankful that we are able to do something,” Estenson said. “It feels like the closing of a book. I hope that it’s an opportunity to reflect on our years here at Luther, and kind of acknowledge the growth that this class has been through. As much as COVID-19 is prevalent, I hope that it’s not the focus of the graduation, because we were so much more than just the class that graduates during COVID-19.”

The commencement ceremony will be followed by a brief outdoor gathering of the graduates, their guests, and members of the faculty and staff on Bentdahl Commons and the library lawn. Academic departments will be distinguished by signs to create a space for faculty members and students to connect after commencement while saying their last goodbyes. 

“[Graduation] is a really special moment, when students can make that transition from students to alumni, and alumni are very engaged with each other as well,” Chamberlain said. “It’s very symbolic of being together for the last moments of students and together as alumni. The ceremony is the bridge between those two, and the in-person allows the opportunity for some faculty and staff outside — that’s always for me one of the most special moments, when the staff get to cheer on the graduates.