Recent graduates faced with tough decisions surrounding commencement

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Image: Mary Helene Hall

Mercer University’s commencement ceremonies are set to take place for both the Macon and Atlanta campuses starting Aug. 7. 

Mercer University’s commencement ceremonies are set to take place for both the Macon and Atlanta campuses starting Aug. 7. 

According to Senior Vice President for Marketing Communications and Chief of Staff Larry Brumley, there will be about 1,500 total participants in the commencement ceremonies. There are 561 on the Macon campus, 826 in Atlanta and 88 from the law school. Typically, there are between 2,000 – 2,100 attendees out of around 2,600 graduates who are invited. 

“The experience we’ve had over the last few months is that if we follow these guidelines astutely—if we mask, if we social distance—we can do these things safely,” Brumley said. 

Commencement for the class of 2020 graduates was originally set to take place in May but was rescheduled to August due to safety concerns during the coronavirus outbreak.

“While we are making progress as a state working through this pandemic, it does not appear likely that we will have made sufficient progress by early May for these large gatherings of graduates, family, friends, and teachers to be either wise or perhaps even legally permissible,” said President Bill Underwood in a communication to students on April 14.

On Wednesday, Georgia became the fifth state in the U.S. to surpass 200,000 confirmed coronavirus cases. Cases in the state doubled in less than one month. With schools across the state beginning to reopen, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that health experts fear another surge in cases. 

The graduation ceremonies will have strict guidelines to uphold the safety of everyone in attendance, Brumley said.

“There’s not going to be a procession like there normally is. Graduates come to the venue, they go straight to their seat, they can’t get up and wander around. Once you get in your seat, you have to stay there,” he said.

Everyone will also be required to wear a mask except when they are getting a photo with President Bill Underwood, and volunteers will be present to enforce social distancing and prevent crowds. 

Some graduates said they feel that attending commencement is a safety risk during the coronavirus pandemic.

Emily Cuarenta, a recent graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in women’s and gender studies, made the decision to not attend commencement. She said that in July, she examined the Georgia Tech COVID-19 Event Risk Assessment Planning Tool and noticed that with 100 people in attendance at an event in Macon, there would be a 99% chance of coronavirus infection.

Cuarenta’s decision was influenced by the fact that she was recently diagnosed with an autoimmune disease.

“I don’t want to find out how COVID-19 will affect my body,” she said. “I’ve had healthy friends and family experience it and it sounds awful.”

Aesha Patel graduated from Mercer with a Bachelor of Science in Biology and said that she also decided against attending graduation. 

“I was planning on it, but I had to re-evaluate once the number of cases started spiking again,” Patel said. “With Macon-Bibb (being in a red-zone state) and a lot of the outside community not being able to get proper healthcare, having in-person ceremonies is going to bring devastating consequences to the area.”

The potential negative impact the commencement ceremonies could have on the Macon area was a primary influence in her decision.

“People come from out of town for graduation. Those people are going to go to restaurants, stay in hotels, go out and about in Macon. They could be spreading the virus to the entire community without knowing,” Patel said. 

Cuarenta shared Patel’s concerns surrounding the security of the community.
“I didn’t realize how selfish I was being when I was considering attending the ceremony in the first place. It’s not just our families and ourselves who we are possibly exposing and risking,” Cuarenta said. “It would be a lot to carry in my conscience to feel responsible for increasing cases in our area.”

Brumley noted that the administration is aware that there are students who do not feel comfortable attending the in-person ceremonies, “and that’s fine,” he said.“We honor that, respect that. They don’t have to be there. No one is being forced to participate in this ceremony,” Brumley said. “These graduates have their diplomas. They are fully recognized as graduates of Mercer University.”

The Mercer University School of Law is the first to hold its commencement ceremony on Aug. 7 at 1 p.m. in Hawkins Arena.

The Macon commencement ceremonies will take place Aug. 8 at 9 a.m for graduates of the School of Business, School of Engineering, College of Education and College of Professional Advancement and 3 p.m. for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, School of Music and College of Health Professions. Both will be held in Hawkins Arena. 

The Atlanta campus will hold two ceremonies at the Infinite Energy Center in Duluth on Aug. 9. The School of Business, College of Education and College of Professional Advancement’s commencement will be at 10 a.m. and the College of Nursing, College of Pharmacy, College of Health Professions and School of Theology’s will be at 5 p.m.