UW News

July 2, 2020

Commencement, UW’s biggest celebration, reimagined as an online event

After years of hard work and perseverance with an unexpected ending, thousands of University of Washington students celebrated the 145th commencement on the second weekend of June.

Many schools, departments and student groups hold their own graduation ceremony, but thousands of graduates also participate in a big, schoolwide commencement celebration at each of the UW’s three campuses. This year all three campuses were combined for the first time — just one way the 2020 graduation was different from any other.

Normally, thousands of families would visit Seattle, traffic advisories would be issued and crowds would gather early in the day. This year the UW Office of Ceremonies planned something completely new. Of the roughly 18,000 students graduating this year, about half participated in the online ceremony. UW leaders spoke at separate, physically distanced podiums, wearing facemasks that matched their regalia. Graduates in caps and gowns tuned in from their homes.

Local TV hosts Erin Mayovsky, a UW graduate and former Huskies soccer player, and husband Gaard Swanson provided commentary for the UW Video live webcast. Watch parties tuned in from across Washington and the U.S., as well as more than 40 other countries – representing every continent except for Antarctica. The ceremony was translated into 10 languages.

The Daily hosted a cap-decoration contest on Instagram. Both the Husky Marching Band and the UW School of Music choir performed over Zoom, and the ceremony combined live action with animated effects. The Seattle campus broadcast ended with Dubs 2 playing on a lawn so that graduates could take a selfie with the mascot onscreen, just like they normally would in front of the stadium.

UW News spoke with Sara Griggs, who has led the UW Office of Ceremonies event for 20 years, to talk about this year’s unprecedented event.

Q: When did you first start thinking about moving graduation online?

I started thinking about it the minute I heard there was a COVID-19 case in Washington, in the last week of January. That was when I actually started thinking and talking with my staff. When the Office of Student Life wrote to me and said, “I don’t know where any of this is leading, but we might want to start thinking about it,” and I said, “I’m already thinking about it.”

We started moving down two paths: One was going ahead live, if that could go on, and the other was planning and looking at what would an online ceremony look like. There was never, ever a thought that somehow graduation would not occur. Because no matter what else is happening, they are graduating on that day.

people in gowns sitting on green lawn

President Ana Mari Cauce, center, and other UW leaders seated on stage before the June 13, 2020, ceremony.University of Washington

Q: The location in Sylvan Grove where UW officials were filmed live was a secret until the morning of the ceremony. How did you choose that setting?

I always knew that part of the experience had to be live, it had to be real for our students. And it had to occur with all the significance and tradition that goes with the in-person ceremony. My mind immediately went to Sylvan Grove and the original columns. The columns have graced the convocation stage and the commencement stage since the founding of the UW.

We wanted the setting to be small, we wanted it to be intimate, and we wanted the students to feel like they were together even though they were apart. Husky Stadium is way too big for a virtual event, but the grove itself is intimate.

At Husky Stadium we have replicas of the columns on stage. But these students have the honor, for the first time in 100 years, of graduating in front of the columns where the first UW graduations took place. They will be part of history, but they’re also stepping back into the UW’s history. The students got the significance of that moment.

photos in caps and gowns on green lawn

Graduates of the UW College of Arts & Sciences line up for the ceremony. These student photos were also used to recreate the giant “W” formation that the students had done as freshmen.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for the virtual procession of graduates’ photos?

Everyone’s favorite moments from the commencement ceremony are the procession in and the walk to the stage — the two times when the students are moving.

I thought, how do we do this? I wanted them to process in, just like they do at Husky Stadium. They come in four on each side, eight across, with the class leaders carrying the gonfalons. I want them to come in and come down the aisles and fill up the rows, just like in Husky Stadium.

We had graduates submit photos of themselves in cap and gown. That was a huge challenge. [laughs] If I have one thing that we’d do better next time, it’s photos. The cap and gowns had to be shipped all over the world, and we learned very quickly about all sort of COVID delays. In the end we also worked with a photo company to develop a cap-and-gown filter that students could use instead, if they didn’t get their regalia.

What was so cool about this year’s procession is that at Husky Stadium you can’t get people lined up alphabetically — that would take us years. But this year we were able to kind of do that. And one of our staff members worked really hard with the animator on making sure that all the distancing was right, and that we had the backdrop right so that we looked like we were in Sylvan Grove.

Q: Previous UW Commencement speakers have included Madeleine Albright and former Governor Chris Gregoire. How did you choose UW President Ana Mari Cauce as this year’s speaker?

We decided early on that one person had led us through a lot this year, and we felt like this was our moment, as an institution, to have a moment together. We wanted her to be the speaker and to be able to connect with the class directly, because she had lived this experience with them. In times of trouble, what do you do? You turn to family. This is not like any other graduation, this is much more about us, about family.

President Cauce’s speech covered the historic times during the pandemic, the systemic inequities it revealed and her own background as a clinical and community psychologist. The speech can be read in full here.

Q: For the thousands of students who tuned in, you recreated the moment where the faculty leaders recommend the students for graduation, and the faculty respond, “Yes, we concur.” How did you arrange that?

We did this because degrees are only official when they’re conferred in front of the faculty, and it’s the deans and the faculty that recommend students for graduation. Many faculty also wanted to share the day with their students.

Each school prerecorded a segment, so their faculty could respond. They each did something different, and they were all in windows onscreen, and the animators were able to make it all sound like they were together.

The faculty went and recorded themselves, and more than half of them were in regalia, and many filmed at a location on campus. When they came up onscreen and they were in regalia, it let the students see that they were there, too. It was really nice to see that the faculty and the administration, nobody took it lightly — everybody was on board with making it an amazing event.

Q: Doing something the first time is always unpredictable. Were there any surprises?

After the degrees were conferred, the siren started and streamers went off, just like in Husky Stadium. I forgot to tell the stage party that that was going to happen, so they went “Whoo!” when that started.

And then the Go Huskies chant started and we could see that people were clapping and cheering everywhere. And the speakers could see that, too, because we had an LED wall in front of the stage so they could interact virtually.

people celebrating in windows onscreen

Dozens of watch parties tuned in from around the world, and some were shared onscreen during the ceremony.

Q: Why did you decide to organize two ceremonies, one virtual and another one later in person?

We know that virtual is not a perfect experience, it’s not what everybody wants. You want to be together, you want to be with your friends. We wanted students to have that live experience, and the earliest we could see that happening was sometime in 2021. But we also wanted to mark the day when it happens, so it doesn’t go unacknowledged.

So we decided: Let’s do both. They can have the best of both worlds.

Q: How many students plan to attend the in-person ceremony for the Class of 2020?

A lot of students said they were interested. How many there will be is, like many things, unknown right now. If there is enough interest, we could hold a separate ceremony. Or we could hold it with the 2021 ceremony. As with everything these days, that is subject to change, but either way, we want to fully recognize the students in the Class of 2020 and their remarkable accomplishments.

Q: How do you think this year’s ceremony will be remembered?

The virtual ceremony will be historic. If you view anything at the university, you know that people are going to look back on that and say: What were they doing? Whatever happens on commencement day is going to be looked back on historically, forever. It will stand out. These graduates will have a place in history that most likely no other class is going to have.

Watch the full webcast:

For more information, contact Griggs at sgriggs@uw.edu.