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In the Time of COVID, Graduations Move Online

By Steven LaneJune 3, 2020

A screenshot from George Washington University PA program's virtual graduation.

Programs across the country are changing up the ways they honor their graduates.

In the traditional graduation month of May, many PA programs joined the rest of higher education in finding creative ways to recreate the essential elements of every graduation — a sense of ceremony and closure, friends and family coming together, celebration of a difficult accomplishment, a milestone passed — but all at a safe distance.

“It was a little weird, to be honest,” said Jon Bowser, MS, PA-C, director of the University of Colorado PA program and immediate past president on the PAEA Board of Directors, of his program’s May ceremony. “It’s such an important time emotionally; a big transition in people’s lives. There’s the excitement of graduation but then all this uncertainty and the thought of our graduates entering a strange, disconnected world. We joke that there are only two times when all of our students are smiling — orientation and graduation.”

Many faculty missed the connection with students, and the chance to send them off in a fitting manner. “As faculty, you grow really close to your class; you’re really proud of them,” said Sara Lolar, MS, PA-C, a faculty member at Wayne State University in Michigan, whose program held an online white coat ceremony in lieu of the usual student-run event. “We never really had the closure, so [the online ceremony] helped a little bit. I said I was very proud to call them my colleagues. Another faculty talked about challenges this group faced that they were able to overcome.”

The faculty-student bond is a really special thing, agreed PAEA President Howard Straker, EdD, MPH, PA-C whose George Washington University PA program was honored with a keynote address from Congressperson Karen Bass, the only PA serving in Congress. The GW faculty and students tried to recreate the coating ceremony with a video in which faculty passed the white coats to the right, and in the next frame students received them from the left. “The hard part was that nobody wanted to get off the call when it was all over,” Straker recalled. “It was a great experience but then we all said, ‘Wow is this really it?’ It was hard to end it.” (You can watch the full video on YouTube. Bass’ comments start at the 35:30-mark.)

Programs, and institutions generally, put a lot of effort into making the virtual experience as memorable as possible. At the Penn State College of Medicine PA program, each student received a package from the program containing, among other mementos, their cap and gown, a mini-diploma, a video, and a Hershey bar, in recognition of nearby chocolate town of Hershey, Pennsylvania. “We made lemonade out of lemons,” said Program Director Christine Bruce, DMSc, PA-C. Students were also announced one by one by a professional voice-over artist, and parts of the ceremony were filmed in the program offices by a professional videographer. Bruce was also very proud to note that one of the PA program’s students, Corinne Niekrewicz, was selected to sing the national anthem.

Yale Online — In Person

One program that did not hold a virtual graduation was one that more than any other might have been expected to – the Yale Online PA program. The program considered doing it, but “the more we thought about it, we thought that enough things have been shortchanged these last few months,” said Program Director Jim Van Rhee, MS, PA-C. So, the program decided to try and bring the students back for an in-person graduation in the fall and did a smaller video celebration to mark the actual moment of graduation.

“We could have done it,” Van Rhee said. “But there is something about being in that room and seeing the students faces and their families faces; something about that accomplishment you just can’t capture it by video. Why do we pay hundreds of dollars to watch Hamilton live instead of just watching a video?”

“The irony is not lost on me,” he added.

Part of the reason for the effort to hold an in-person graduation was that the current class is the first to graduate from the Yale Online program, said Mary Ruggeri, MEd, student member at large on the PAEA Board of Directors, who just graduated from the program and is studying for the PANCE. The students felt very invested in the program, Ruggeri said, having been pioneers in an innovative new program, which they helped shape along the way. “The program was constantly making changes based on student feedback,” she said. “The faculty were very receptive.”

COVID-19 may even have been a factor, Ruggeri said. “With everybody social distancing, there was more craving for human interaction.” In the end, she said, “It is the celebration I crave, the sense of something special, that this is the end. People were looking forward to having their families come to Yale. And it’s such a beautiful campus.”

The pandemic will undoubtedly change the world in many lasting ways, but perhaps the need for humans to come together to celebrate milestones will prove more powerful than the convenience of Zoom meetings for a few more years yet.

Steven Lane

Steven is the senior director of strategic communications for PAEA. He has worked with the PA profession for much of his career and in 2016 he joined the PAEA staff for the third time.