On March 8, 2021, Western Illinois University released a press release canceling their traditional in-person graduation ceremony for the third consecutive semester. According to the press release, “While many of Western Illinois University’s Spring/Summer 2021 graduates have expressed their wishes for an in-person commencement this spring, due to COVID-19 restrictions, the University is unable to host traditional in-person Spring 2021 Commencement ceremonies.”
The announcement was met with strong reactions from many students, parents, faculty and staff members, and others from the Leatherneck community. Some expressed concerns about the safety of holding a large in-person graduation ceremony, as this could allow for the spread of COVID-19. However, many students were disappointed that their opportunity to walk at graduation and commemorate their accomplishments from the past four years would be lost.
The disappointment about the cancelation of graduation turned to outrage when Western Illinois University’s Facebook page, along with other social media accounts from the university, announced on Friday that in-person homecoming events will be held on campus this spring. According to the Facebook post, “WIU’s Homecoming Committee has been working hard over the past eight weeks to plan several homecoming events for the spring 2021 semester.” Many students expressed that the effort that went into planning a safe homecoming celebration could have also gone towards planning a safe graduation ceremony. In the post’s comments, members of the Leatherneck community were critical of the University’s decision.
Second-year graduate student Jesse Mercer, who is graduating from WIU this spring, said, “I can’t imagine a scenario in which graduation would be more dangerous than homecoming and seems to me either both should happen or neither.”
Many students have also made comments that other Illinois Universities are holding in-person graduation ceremonies, and that WIU should follow suit. According to graduating senior Katlynn Davis, “When we look at WIU’s plans for graduation in comparison to schools such as Northern Illinois University and Aurora University, it is evident to see that WIU could be doing much more for the spring 2021 graduating class. I’m happy to see that WIU is reopening, but I wish they would reconsider.”
Many students, like Mercer and Davis, are upset about the decision to hold homecoming and not graduation, as these students feel that hosting an in-person homecoming is no safer than hosting graduation ceremonies. Many students are evaluating the decision to hold homecoming but not graduation as a reflection of Western Illinois University’s priorities, stating that they are valuing athletics over the general student body. In response to the widespread outrage, WIU senior Taylor Gean created an online petition to hold in-person graduation ceremonies. The petition currently has 1,309 signatures from students, parents, family members, alumni and many more who are invested in the Leatherneck community. The petition includes the names of larger universities that are holding in-person graduation ceremonies as evidence that Western Illinois University could safely hold a ceremony as well. The petition also utilizes data about Western Illinois University’s COVID-19 case numbers, as there has not been a positive case recorded on campus for several weeks. Petitioners are encouraging Western Illinois University administration to reevaluate their decision not to hold an in-person graduation ceremony in response to these arguments. Western Illinois University’s administration has yet to respond to this petition or any other student comments or feelings about the graduation ceremonies being held virtually.
The decision whether or not to hold an in-person graduation ceremony during a global pandemic is understandably a complicated one. However, the University’s decision to hold several in-person homecoming events this spring semester has sparked student interest and questions about why homecoming events are considered safer than holding a graduation ceremony. Students encouraging the university to reconsider are dealing with a widespread scale of emotions between outrage and disappointment as they deal with the thought that their graduation celebrations will not look the same as what they pictured when they entered Western Illinois University approximately four years ago.