Thursday was commencement day at Temple University.
In a normal year, that would have meant thousands of proud students savoring years of hard work, proceeding into the cavernous Liacouras Center, soaking up speeches and adulation, then swarming signature spots on campus for celebratory photos.
Instead, much of that swath of North Broad Street was eerily quiet and half-deserted Thursday morning. At 11 a.m., the university invited graduates to a website, Classof2020.temple.edu, to hear encouraging words prerecorded by university leaders and watch a virtual video time capsule of highlights from their four years on campus, narrated by student commencement speaker Donovan Forrest.
“I hope that everyone stays encouraged and understands the current condition of our world can’t really take away the joy and pride that we have for one another,” said Forrest, a secondary education and history major who starts a job as a Philadelphia public high school teacher in September.
It wasn’t clear how many even logged on. Still, the coronavirus couldn’t completely cancel tradition. By afternoon, dozens of students in cap and gown had flocked to campus for photographs and socially distant revelry.
Temple was among the first area colleges to mark the virtual end of its school year, but a similar experience — memorable in a way none could have predicted — awaits thousands of graduating seniors. Across the region, college campuses that are usually bubbling and packed during commencement will stand largely quiet, as they have since the coronavirus forced universities to move instruction online and most students off campus.
Colleges have moved their commencement programs online, some of them opting for live virtual events with speakers. Others are creating commencement websites packed with laudatory messages, a salute to graduates and a variety of other features that students and their families can peruse at their leisure.
Temple’s also featured hundreds of congratulatory messages from faculty, staff, family members and a couple of well-known faces, including trustee and talk show host Tamron Hall and the actress Tina Fey, whose brother and father attended Temple.
Just about all the colleges, including Temple, have vowed to hold an in-person ceremony as soon as conditions allow.
“We heard from a lot of our students and their families, so many of them first-generation graduates, that they want to have an in-person commencement,” said Temple president Richard M. Englert.
West Chester University, which was scheduled to have more than a dozen commencement ceremonies from Friday to Monday, heard the same from its students and parents.
“They want to have their child walk across the stage and have his or her name announced,” said Christopher Fiorentino, president of the more than 17,000-student university.
The university this week will post a “Virtual Celebration of the Class of 2020,” including a video of congratulatory messages, a collage of class photos and videos and the name of each graduate scrolled across the page. The site also will include downloadable congratulation signs that students can display on doors and windows, university Zoom backgrounds and a Snapchat filter where graduates can dress in their cap and gown.
Some graduates and their families have already come to campus to take photos near the Ram statue and other key places on campus, said Fiorentino, who lives in the president’s residence there.
The quietness of the campus at what should be such a joyous time is sad, he said.
“The message we’re trying to give to the students is, 'This is life and you have to rebound …,” he said, “and it’s going to make you more resilient. We’ll move forward from here, all of us.”
Pennsylvania State University has opted for a live virtual commencement, which will be livestreamed internationally at 2 p.m. Saturday, with remarks from the president and provost, conferring of degrees and guest appearances by alumni. The University of Pennsylvania also will hold a live virtual ceremony on May 18. Penn has not released details of its plans.
Rutgers University’s virtual ceremony on May 31 will run from 60 to 75 minutes and feature an address by NBC News anchor Lester Holt from his home studio.
Neumann University in Aston is collecting student mortarboard messages and plans to publish them on the website. The school also will offer congratulatory notes and videos, by and for seniors, and president Chris Domes is sending a champagne flute and note to every senior. The seniors also will receive a Neumann poster with the university mascot, a knight, in mask and gloves.
For students, lack of an on-campus ceremony is disappointing but understandable, given the conditions.
“It’s very bittersweet,” said Emily Frizzelle, 23, a photography and digital arts major at Moore College of Art and Design. “It’s hard to wrap my head around that it had to end this way.”
As valedictorian, she was looking forward to giving the class address — and she still will get that chance. She prerecorded a two-minute message to graduates that will be shared during the Zoom commencement ceremony on May 16. (She’ll also speak at an on-campus commencement to be scheduled for later.)
It was difficult figuring out what to say to classmates, said Frizzelle, of Levittown. The school is filled with creative people who are stressed when they can’t create, she said.
“Try your best not to stress yourself out,” she said, summarizing her message. “Don’t push yourself to do things when you are not feeling up to it right now. Take care of yourself.”
Forrest, 24, said his message to students is that even though graduation isn’t what they expected, they should be proud they “made it to the finish line.”
“We’re resilient,” he said, “and we have a whole entire community supporting us.”