Illinois State’s students, faculty, and staff adapted to significant changes in learning and teaching throughout the academic year as a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19). The pandemic also impacted graduation plans last spring and in December, with commencement becoming a virtual event. The May celebration will be as well; however, efforts have been made to make the spring milestone more memorable.
In addition to online ceremonies that will be prerecorded by college, all 2021, as well as 2020 graduates, have the opportunity to participate in the Redbird Stage Crossing. Held in Redbird Arena, the event gives students the opportunity to walk across the commencement stage as it is traditionally decorated to receive their diploma cover while their name is announced and a slide with their degree information and photo they provided appears.
A professional photographer captures formal portraits of the graduate, who can choose to wear regalia. Each participant is allowed up to four guests. The opportunity is an effort to create the family moment of celebration that is felt during the more traditional ceremony still on hold due to the pandemic.
“Graduating students and their guests have consistently shared with us that the most important aspect of the commencement ceremony to them is the graduate crossing a commencement stage and having their name announced. This is the portion of a traditional ceremony that is preserved in the Redbird Stage Crossing,” said Jill Benson, associate dean in the Dean of Students Office. She coordinates commencement through the unit that is part of Student Affairs, working closely with Commencement and Special Events Manager Terri Haerr ’93.
“It is important to honor our graduates with some in-person opportunity, and also important to allow as many of their family and guests to be in attendance as possible,” said Benson, who oversees the stage crossing event that is organized by graduates reserving a time slot over several days in late April and early May.
Approximately 3,000 students have registered, with nearly 450 of those graduates from 2020. The event will run for approximately 100 hours total over several days, with a maximum of 40 graduates scheduled per hour. Each receives a packet with the commencement programs, a commemorative tassel, and an alumni keychain.
“We looked for creative ways to provide graduates what was most important to them, but remain within the state gathering size restrictions. It is very logistically challenging to provide this opportunity to thousands of graduates, while still ensuring adherence to state requirements,” Benson said.
Safety protocols are in place, with face masks required for all other than when the graduates cross the stage and for photographs. Individuals check-in and wait in designated areas that are socially distanced. Seating has been eliminated to further protect participants, with different photo backdrops strategically placed throughout the arena to prevent crowding. These include a life-size cutout of President Larry Dietz and another of Reggie Redbird, as well as a replica of the Old Main bell on the Quad.
There is a tent set up outside the arena for additional family and friends to watch their graduate on stage, and where faculty often gather to congratulate their students. There are also more unique backgrounds set up for photos and an opportunity to purchase flowers or graduation memorabilia.
Graduates at the event expressed their appreciation for the opportunity to have a moment on the commencement stage. Written comments conveyed gratitude for the effort, with participants saying it was an impressive event that one student described as “the best 10 minutes of the last four years!”
George Holloway Jr. of Bloomington, who finishes his MBA this spring, was among students to cross the stage on April 22. A nontraditional graduate who completed the degree while working at State Farm Insurance Companies in IT Training, he welcomed the opportunity to celebrate the achievement.
Holloway’s wife, Wanda, and sister-in-law Dianne, attended and were equally pleased to have the official graduation moment and capture commencement photos. “This has been a good alternative, and we appreciate the efforts made to keep us all safe,” said Wanda, who teaches in Illinois State’s School of Social Work.
Jenna McGill of Yorkville, an exercise science major finishing her undergraduate degree, attended the Redbird Stage Crossing with her parents, Paul and Lisa (Wesolowski) McGill ’87. She admitted initially thinking she would not attend the event, but was grateful she seized the moment.
“I think it’s neat that we get graduation pictures, and having your name announced is cool. It’s one step closer to getting back to normal and makes it feel like I’m graduating,” McGill said.
Zachary Snow is a 2020 risk management, insurance, and general finance graduate who is living in Bloomington as he works as an underwriter for an insurance firm in Georgia. He was especially pleased to have the opportunity to participate since the stage crossing was not an option during last year’s commencement season.
“I am thankful they had it for us too, and I was not going to miss out. It’s a chance to remember the time on campus and the accomplishments of the past four years,” said Snow, who attended with his girlfriend, Megan Rutherford. A senior graduating this spring with a food, nutrition, and dietetics degree, she too will cross the stage. Snow’s mother, Kris ’93, also joined him at the event and found it to be an emotional moment. “I’m about to cry,” she said. “I’m just so proud.”
Students who do not attend the Redbird Stage Crossing will receive by mail the packet distributed at the event. All graduates will be invited to view commencement ceremonies for their college online the first week of May.
A slide show of graduates will be included in the virtual event, as well as remarks from Dietz as he leads his last graduation prior to retiring in June. Other speakers will include administrators at the college, department, or school level, as well as students and the Alumni Association president.