Three Columbia College Chicago students plan in-person college graduation

The Covid-19 pandemic has led various Chicago universities to hold virtual graduations again this year, such as DePaul University, Columbia College Chicago, Loyola University and Northwestern University. But some students are taking matters into their own hands to plan an in-person ceremony. 

Three public relations students at Columbia College launched a campaign nearly three months ago called CommenceAnyways, in hopes to host a mass, in-person graduation ceremony for all Chicago-area college seniors. 

The university unaffiliated event was planned to take place May 16 at Soldier Field and was open to a maximum of 300 students with four guests each. In order to secure the event at Soldier Field, the campaign needed to raise $15,000 by April 30 to finalize the contract. 

“The reason why my team and I started CommenceAnyways was back in December, our institution declared a virtual commencement ceremony, and we thought it was a little presumptuous for them to do so,” said Nathan Branch, a Columbia College senior and one of the three student organizers. 

Branch said that he and co-organizers, Jahmelah Miller and Alice Scharf, noticed in the news that other universities in Chicago or around the country were being more communicative and receptive to students’ feedback on graduation plans, but their university had fallen short in that regard.  

“We just found that it was a little disheartening that our institution didn’t do that [ask for student feedback],” Branch said. “We thought that crucial part was not advocated on our behalf.”

The GoFundMe only reached around $5,200 by the deadline and the original idea of hosting the mass event at Soldier Field had to be reworked. The students are now searching for alternative venues to host the 55 students who previously signed up for the event. 

“We’re still working diligently to celebrate the students who had registered to have them at a secondary location,” Branch said. “We’re going to follow this thing through, we’re still doing something.” 

While they were hoping to welcome students from all over Chicago, the ceremony will no longer be open to more attendees. Students who previously signed up in hopes that Soldier Field would work out and don’t want to come to the new venue can receive refunds, Branch said. 

 With very little resources, the organizers of CommenceAnways have used their experiences from various PR and social media classes to spread news of their campaign for at least three months. They created a GoFundMe, an Instagram account, hosted Instagram Lives and Q&A sessions, to name a few examples, for interested students to learn more about the event. 

“In tandem with advocating for a celebratory experience during a pandemic, it is a great portfolio piece for us,” Branch said. 

The team never received a direct response from the university, despite reaching out to Columbia’s administration. “But a reporter from NBC did reach out and the response they got was ‘Columbia does support us,’ but they just can’t physically and financially support us,” Branch said. 

Branch, Miller and Scharf decided to open up the event to all college seniors because they needed all the attendees they could get for the initial Soldier Field plan. 

“At that point we needed as many students as possible because we were trying, with little resources, to reach students,” Branch said. “Ultimately, we needed more resources and we didn’t have them.” 

While the organization doesn’t know which schools the 55 attendees are from, Branch anticipates at least 95 percent are Columbia College students, but the roll call will only be read in alphabetical order, major and concentration –– not by school. 

Wherever the event is held now, Covid-19 guidelines will still be in place. 

“The mandate of requiring either a vaccine or Covid-19 test we’re still figuring out with our new location,” Branch said. “We are abiding by the request of the location and their Covid-19 mandates.”

Despite being forced to change venues, Branch said he and his co-organizers are still looking forward to celebrating seniors on May 16. 

“We envisioned that we were going to look into the crowd and see a sea of many colored robes and all of these guests and attendees and knowing we were able to provide students with a memory and something that is very meaningful and is a major milestone,” Branch said. “It would give such a strong sense of community and togetherness especially during a pandemic which took so much away from us.” 

Although DePaul graduates and graduates from other schools can no longer sign up for the event, Branch encourages them to check out the CommenceAnyways Instagram page and participate in upcoming senior series events. 

DePaul University is offering a series of in-person graduation events May 19-28 for graduating seniors along with the online ceremonies that will be held May 22 and June 12.