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ISU Gets Creative To Craft No-Crowd Commencement Experience

Dietz shakes a hand
Illinois State University
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Illinois State University hasn't had a big traditional commencement ceremony since 2019. Now, it's moving back toward in-person celebrations with smaller Redbird Stage Crossings.

Illinois State University is bringing back a few parts of the traditional commencement experience this spring, even if looks and feels a little different for students.

ISU is offering a new method for graduation called Redbird Stage Crossings. The program was developed to include the most important elements of commencement, including the walk across the stage, being surrounded by loved ones, and having your name called. The only thing missing from a student’s Redbird State Crossing will be the enormous, socially undistanced crowd.

Associate Dean of Students Jill Benson said students were the main priority when creating Redbird Stage Crossings.

“We wanted to find a way to extract that piece of the commencement experience. And find a way to do that piece that is most important to the graduates in-person,” said Benson.

Students are able to sign up for a 15-minute time slot in late April to early May for their stage crossing. A graduate can bring up to four guests to Redbird Arena.

Graduates will get photos taken professionally while on the stage and after with backdrops provided by the university. Outside, there will be tents with professors, staff, faculty, friends and more to celebrate with the graduates. This piece was added to give graduates a stronger feel of graduation while still following COVID-19 protocols.

“We wanted to plan an event that we knew we could do—even if they (CDC) would continue to have some of the tight gathering size restrictions we have in place right now. Because the last thing any graduate wants is to plan on a celebration and then have it cancelled,” said Benson.

Redbird Stage Crossings is a non-seated event that will rotate 40 students at a given time on the floor of the arena to the stage. Benson said even though the students essentially “walk through” the arena it is more than just that.

“Some campuses are doing something like this and calling it a walk-through commencement. To us, that sounded like it was a rehearsal, and this is not a rehearsal, right? This is a very symbolic moment for our Illinois State students. We wanted to represent what it was and it is truly a stage crossing moment.”

Around 2,890 graduating students have signed up for the event. The majority of them are upcoming graduates of spring 2021 to summer 2021. ISU also extended the invitation to all of the 2020 graduates from spring, summer and winter. Around 10% of those signed up for the event are 2020 graduates.

“They didn't have that opportunity, and so we wanted to give them that opportunity,” Benson said.

A regular commencement weekend has about 3,000 participants.

Graduates are excited to experience a moment that many did not last spring. Senior Emily Killian prepared for her big day by including her friends and getting her essentials.

“I’m really excited about it. My friends and I actually signed up for the same day so that we can all go at the same time slot and everything. I got my honors stoles and cords and I ordered my cap and gown,” said Killian.

Killian said she has quite a few family members who have graduated from Illinois State, and she wants to follow in their footsteps.

“It's kind of a big deal for me to be able to graduate from here, so I wanted to be able to do anything for them—you know? So that they could see me cross the stage,” said Killian.

Going back to the regular commencement is ideal for the university and students after this year, though the future is hard to predict.

“That would be ideal to return to a traditional commencement ceremony. But if we can't, we remain committed to do something in-person for the graduates. So, this will be a pilot to see how this works to achieve that goal,” said Benson. “I think we just have to see where we are as a state and a nation when our next season of commencement comes around which would be December of 2021.”

Benson said the response received from graduating students and their families has been overwhelmingly positive.

In addition to the Redbird Stage Crossing, Illinois State University is honoring spring and summer 2021 graduates with online ceremonies featuring slide shows of graduates and remarks by President Larry Dietz and other university officials.

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Camberyn Kelley is a WGLT intern focused on reporting and online writing. She is also a student in Illinois State University's School of Communication.