The decision to make Thomas Nelson’s 2020 spring graduation ceremony a virtual online experience was made after consulting numerous groups. However, one group always was at the forefront: the students.
“The major consideration after safety of everyone was what do our graduates want,” said Thomas Nelson Interim President Dr. Gregory DeCinque.
Alicia Riley, the College’s Special Events Coordinator, mentioned the online option early on amid the pandemic. The President's Cabinet reviewed the plan, then decided to survey those graduating.
“The survey results indicated a 60-40 split in favor of virtual, but the comments were very telling,” DeCinque said. “Student after student talked about how important a live commencement was to them and their families.”
Steven Felker, director of Institutional Research and Effectiveness, said his office administered the survey after developing it in consultation with DeCinque, the Cabinet and Riley.
“Before making any decisions regarding commencement exercises for this year, we wanted to hear directly from our graduating students and understand their preferences,” Felker said. “The event is for them and their families, so their voice was particularly important to our decision.”
As a result, the College is planning two ceremonies to honor the Class of 2020. The online event will be May 14 and a traditional ceremony is slated for December. That date and other details are pending.
Kris Rarig, Vice President for Student Affairs, noted Riley was thinking about a virtual ceremony even before the College campus was closed to students.
“She has been very sensitive to the feelings of the students as we try to find a solution to appropriately celebrate their significant accomplishments in these challenging times,” Rarig said of Riley.
Student Government Association President Lizz Yimer likes the idea of an online ceremony, especially since so many other events (school-related and non-school-related) students were looking forward to have been canceled. Having a ceremony, even if online, can be a big benefit for them.
“I think having something to celebrate is a really good idea,” she said.
As for the ceremony, pre-recorded videos will be posted online at 10 a.m. on May 14. The College choir is performing the national anthem, followed by an invocation from Pastor Ivory Morgan-Burton, a welcome message from DeCinque and an address from Yimer.
Riley already has the video of the choir singing the national anthem.
“Our choir did the videos while at home,” she said. “They did a Zoom link, and it looks like the choir is all together. The members of the choir that are faculty are wearing regalia.”
One positive of going online with video is the chance to include more footage of both the Hampton and Historic Triangle campuses.
“There are so many people that don’t get a chance to see our facilities, or what the classrooms look like,” Riley said. “So we are placing our speakers in different locations to showcase the wonderful facilities that we have.”
The deans of each division will read the names of their respective graduating students, as well as any honors those students received. Faculty will alsol play a role in the ceremony.
After the conferring of degrees, there will be video of faculty applauding the students. Anyone who wants to participate is being asked to submit a 10-second video of them complete in their regalia, giving applause. Those videos will be edited into a montage.
A video called “Messages from Faculty,” where faculty members can send a special message to their students is also in the works.
“That was a request from the faculty to participate as much as possible,” Riley said.
An added feature given the online ceremony is the ability to go “global with our speakers.”
Instead of offering one keynote speaker, Thomas Nelson’s ceremony will feature six speakers from around the world, each submitting a five- to eight-minute video presentation. There will be links on the graduation ceremony page to select a specific speaker, and the videos can be viewed countless times.
“While understanding how saddening this is for students who have worked to achieve this milestone, (Riley) hoped to seize the opportunity to identify and deliver some speakers of a caliber we could not otherwise provide in an in-person scenario,” Rarig said.
Yimer also likes this concept.
“In a typical commencement, you only get one speaker or a couple speakers. You don’t really get to choose which story you hear,” she said. “But with an online commencement, you get to customize who you want to listen to.”
Collectively, the six scheduled speakers will be able to provide an experience not available with a traditional ceremony.
“They are all successful entrepreneurs … to deliver a story, from different ages, different backgrounds (and) situations,” Riley said.
Here is the list of speakers:
Tony Brothers: Founder of Men for Hope, Inc., and a longtime referee in the National Basketball Association from Norfolk.
Bron Hansboro: An award-winning floral and event designer based in Richmond. He travels the world selling flowers and teaching online courses. He’s also a former high school principal.
Fawn Miller: She’s a “chill-preneur” living on a beach, doing everything by cell phone and computer. She lives in Mexico.
Rosetta Qadhi: An author and businesswoman with companies in Canada and the Caribbean.
Jennifer Trethewey: An author and businesswoman from Australia.
Kimberly “Queen Kimmie” Tyson: She’s a U.S. Army veteran, an entrepreneur and CEO of “Scatterbrain Kingdom Enterprises” and “Queen Kimmie 101 Coaching and Courses.”