Kristal Herrin

(Rock Hill, S.C.) — Winthrop University’s first in-person commencement ceremony since December 2019 is set to take place with five separate ceremonies that will span three days from May 6-8.

Each ceremony will have a capacity of about 1,400 people in the Winthrop Coliseum, with an allotment of four guests per graduate.

Timothy Drueke — assistant provost for curriculum and program support at Winthrop — is the chair of the commencement committee, who has a lead role in the ceremony’s execution.

Drueke said, as the spring semester nears an end, staff are working to prepare the Coliseum for the event, according to COVID-19 guidelines as determined by state and university officials.

“The conversation occurred around three groups, the commencement committee, academic leadership and then university executive leadership. The three groups talked through the process,” said Drueke, who appeared on the Palmetto Report podcast.

He said the changes and decisions were made for the event to happen in a “responsibly, socially distanced way.”

Graduates will not receive their diploma’s directly after the ceremony, seating and physical contact will be adjusted according to COVID-19 guidelines and the ceremony will be shorter and more concise, according to Drueke.

“We’re still trying to work out some of that detail, (for example) no handshakes exchanged,” Drueke said. “Normally we hand the diplomas to you after the ceremony. That’s not going to happen, because normally we would get those diplomas ready that Friday, but we’ve got ceremonies that Friday.”

He said diplomas will be mailed the following Monday, so students should verify the mailing address they have registered with the university is accurate.

A number of students said they’re pleased with the news.

“I’m glad that there is going to be an actual ceremony, because of the past year-and-a-half, I thought I’d just be watching a virtual screen at home and not be participating at a commencement because of COVID,” said Annie Laurie, who will graduate with a degree in English.

“I almost feel like it’s surreal, because I have been in college for a really long time, so I’m ready to be done, but I don’t feel like it has really hit me,” said English. “I just got my cap and gown yesterday and it made it feel all the more real that I am doing this.”

Carson Pender, a graduate student who is participating in the first ceremony, said she is glad to be celebrating in-person after having such a different semester during the spring.

“I’m looking forward to an in-person graduation since I wasn’t someone who had many in-person classes,” Pender said. “I’m only nervous and scared, because I know how it will compare to a ‘normal’ graduation and that’s tough, but I’m more excited and grateful for the opportunity. Maybe even more excited that the crowd won’t be as big as normal, because the crowds can be so overwhelming.”

Logan McCain, an exercise science major who plans to participate in the commencement ceremony, said he has mixed feelings about the event.

“It is a bittersweet moment, especially in the midst of a pandemic,” McCain said. “We all have friends and family members wanting to see us graduate in-person, but can’t. I am grateful we are having a ceremony and I am able to participate, because some of my friends didn’t get the opportunity to have the moment I am getting.”

Zachary Revert, who graduated last spring with a degree in biology, was part of the 2020 class of Winthrop graduates who didn’t get an in-person ceremony.

“It sucks that I didn’t get the chance to have a real graduation,” said Revert. “But hey, I’m happy that they decided to go through with an in-person ceremony this time, so this group of graduates won’t have to miss out on that experience.”

The ceremony will be streamed live online and later uploaded to YouTube, so that the friends and families of graduates, who are unable to attend, will be able to watch.

It’s also the first time in 15 years that all degree candidates were invited to participate in the commencement ceremony before they were cleared for graduation, which will take place the week after grades are finalized.