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COVID-19 doesn't stop grads from celebrating commencement

COVID-19 doesn’t stop spring 2020 grads from celebrating commencement through inaugural virtual event

By University of Phoenix

  • Jun 16, 2020
  • 4 min read
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When University of Phoenix President Peter Cohen addressed the school’s 2020 spring graduates, he had a poignant and relevant message: You can overcome anything.

That message rings true for all Phoenixes, something Cohen attributes to University alumni having grit — an innate ability to push through any challenge, no matter how severe, to achieve any goal in life. An example was the commencement ceremony itself. The University planned to begin hosting virtual graduates to give online students unable to attend in-person events a way to celebrate, but plans had to be expedited as a result of COVID-19.

Graduates came a long way to earn their degree, and when the pandemic forced campuses to close and universities to cancel in-person commencement ceremonies, University of Phoenix quickly pivoted to provide students a way to celebrate. The result was the inaugural virtual commencement May 21 streamed live via YouTube. The event celebrated the nearly 3,000 graduates from the Phoenix, Florida and Charlotte Campuses.

The virtual commencement was an abridged version of the traditional in-person ceremony and included messages from Dr. John Woods, chief academic officer and provost, Cohen and featured speaker Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals wide receiver and University alum.

Dr. Woods kicked off the event by telling graduates that nothing, not even a global pandemic, could take away from the recognition they deserved.

“We know you worked too hard, spent too many late nights, overcame too many obstacles to allow anything to stop you and us from enjoying your graduation ceremony,” he said. “The pandemic can keep us from being in the same room with each other, but it can’t keep us from coming together to celebrate your achievement.”

As of June 1, the video of the ceremony had more than 19,000 views from grads and family and friends, who attended from across the country to chat with one another and congratulate graduates through an interactive live chat feature. Through the thousands of messages, attendees shared photos and words of encouragement, pride and elation.

To provide an in-person feeling, the University played special alumni videos between speakers, such as the CONGRADS video featuring some of this year’s new alumni. Graduates were also provided a link to their personalized announcement, which replaced the calling of graduates’ names and could be shared on social media.

The will to never give up, the determination to finish what you start — I think it might be innate in every University of Phoenix student and alum.

Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals legend and UOPX graduate (Bachelor of Science in Communication,  2016).

Fitzgerald capped off their educational journey with an inspiring personal message of determination that linked his journey as a student to the perseverance these graduates showed in earning their degrees.

“The will to never give up, the determination to finish what you start — I think it might be innate in every University of Phoenix student and alum,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re not your traditional college student. Life has usually happened for us, yet there is this burning need to get that degree to feel complete, to feel truly accomplished.”

While Fitzgerald’s full-time job was on a football field, like most UOPX students, he had to work hard to fit in his studies. The 11-time Pro Bowler described a desire to finish the educational journey he had started before being drafted in 2004 as the third overall National Football League pick when he was a college sophomore. Inspired by his mom, who passed away from breast cancer in 2003, Fitzgerald graduated from UOPX in spring 2016. It was a game changer in his life, he said, and fulfilled a promise he made to his mom.

Cohen, the closing speaker, echoed Fitzgerald’s statements, highlighting the additional challenges students have faced due to the coronavirus pandemic. Many Phoenixes are single parents, veterans and older students who, like Fitzgerald, delayed their college education because life took them elsewhere.

Cohen celebrated the strength of will and determination of students who come back and finish their degrees.

“Grit is something I see our students and alumni exhibit time after time after time,” Cohen said. “It’s inspiring to witness, and it’s gratifying to be a part of. It is something I hold in the highest esteem.”

Students were encouraged to look for what may be a silver lining in this pandemic — many people are experiencing the rigor of online education for the first time. Those who may not have understood the challenges, as well as the benefits, now recognize them. Cohen said the University is hearing of a new respect for this modality of learning and for the students who find success through its path.

He reminded students that the pandemic and its fallout can be overwhelming and concerning, but he challenged them to embrace what commencement represents — the culmination of a journey that began long before the coronavirus.

“Remember who you are, remember what you have overcome to be here today,” Cohen said.

As the ceremony concluded, Cohen urged graduates to share one word in the live feed describing their UOPX journey. Responses flooded the comments box: “Amazing,” “Incredible,” “Fulfilling,” “Beautiful,” “Excellent,” “Fantastic,” Rewarding” and “WORTH IT!”

The comments section also lit up with messages from the virtual crowd of family and friends of graduates: “Woohoo Mommy!” “Congratulations, you did it!” “So proud of you!” “WTG Mommy!” and “Rise up!”