A premature farewell: how COVID-19 has upended commencement traditions

May 15, 2020

Four years. 36 months. 1,044 days. 25,056 hours. 

This time is inscribed with invisible ink on the diploma that Calvin graduates receive the day they cross the stage. Commencement is the frontman to all traditions. Senior rituals from sports banquets to final chapel services are pieces of closure that help graduates move onward to the chapters that await. But what happens when the jolt of a global pandemic disrupts the central ingredient to all commencement-related rituals: the ability to gather in person? 

In a New York minute, Calvin seniors faced a very different kind of closure to their four years on campus. Abby Vedders remembers how her Calvin experience began before she was even enrolled. “Being able to talk to my dad about traditions we have both been a part of has been such a cool experience, and has shown me that Calvin is a place that deeply values a bonded community.” 

For athletes like Libby Engle, in-person gatherings create a sense of bonding, closure and legacy for teammates. These include “the lessons that have been passed down, and the team traditions that we still continue such as team campout, Guava night, and even our pre-meet prayers as a women’s team. When I look at the pictures up on the walls at the pool and the record board displayed, I think about and remember all of those that have been on the team before me.” 

According to senior Evan Klein, “The traditions at Calvin are steeped in a sense of community that extends not only across campus but across generations. As a participant in Calvin’s traditions, you join with students and recognize the work that has gone in to make Calvin what it is today.” 

Tradition gives us a shared identity and status despite our differences.”

The Latin root for the word tradition means “to hand something over.” These senior sentiments are a testament to the baton-passing between Calvin communities past, present and future. “Traditions have helped me remember that I am a part of something enduring here at Calvin,” said Vedders. 

Despite the outbreak of COVID-19, seniors are doing what they can to pass that baton. Such endurance attempts to triumph over the many impacts of unfulfilled traditions. A recent article in “Psychology Today” by psychiatry professor and author Saul Levine describes the profound need to uphold tradition in order to fulfill what he calls “the Four B’s”: Being, Belonging, Believing and Benevolence. This refers to our identity, how it fits in a larger group, our values, and “the extent to which we enhance the lives of others.” Tradition gives us a shared identity and status despite our differences. It creates an opportunity for us to support one another on the things we’ve achieved. 

A Calvin-unique characteristic is the support that goes beyond the final walk, even in the wake of a pandemic. Klein found this support in his advisor, Professor Amy Wilstermann. In his “one last advising meeting,” said Klein, “she reassured me that although I was graduating from Calvin, I can always reach out to her and set up an ‘advising appointment’ with her — I could be her ‘lifetime advisee.’” But the tradition he was looking forward to the most, after playing piano in chapel for three years, was the final, senior-led service. Vedders, Engle and others also cherish this final farewell and its accompanying prayers. 

Without a tangible ending, the closure seniors are looking for is harder to find. Regarding the annual team banquet, Engle described the sadness that comes with not being able to finish her fourth year as a Calvin swimmer. “Setting time aside to acknowledge our coaches, teammates, all the behind the scenes moments, and even just the little moments that made our time as a team so special is always something I look forward to and something that’s been very impactful for me. While we still are able to reflect and express gratitude, there’s something about being together for one last time.”

It’s not just about those 25,056 hours. It’s about the anticipation, watching and participating in unfolding traditions, and excitement for what is to come — not the bleakness that the pandemic offers. But in the bleakness, there are beacons. 

find a way to say goodbye to Calvin in a way that feels right”

The care shown by Calvin leaders, counseling professionals, advisors, professors and coaches is evident and appreciated by the seniors. With such support, a remarkable amount of optimism emanates from the senior class as they look forward. Regardless of the timing or location, they are the branches spreading out around the world, bearing the fruit they’ve harvested here at Calvin. Parting with what has been their home for the past four years has been exceptionally difficult.

Vedders copes with this by “trying to find small ways to hold on to Calvin this spring,” by walking through campus and listening to the Spotify playlist of chapel and LOFT songs — she wants to remind fellow seniors that “it is okay to grieve,” and encourages them to “find a way to say goodbye to Calvin in a way that feels right” for them. “Maybe it’s taking a walk around campus, writing a thank-you note to a professor who made an impact on you, or reaching out to a friend that was an integral part of your time here.” Her wisdom offers that sought-after tangible yet temporary ending until they gather once again on October 3 for Commencement 2020. The week of May 18, Calvin will be sending a “special graduation surprise,” according to a message sent out from President LeRoy. As Calvin supports these seniors, so too can the community that they adore, through prayers and encouragement. 

According to Levine, tradition is our history, our shared identity, and it allows for us to temporarily remove ourselves from the jarring effects of the world because it provides us with “nurturance and pleasure of communing.” Since they can no longer physically gather, seniors and staff are looking for innovative ways to stay connected, to listen and to celebrate. 

Engle, at least, is undeterred. “I can’t believe my time here is done — I wish I could be in college forever. It was such a gift. I’ll be telling stories of my college experience forever. Always, go Knights.”

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