Class of 2020 petitions for on-campus commencement ceremony

Some seniors demand 'clarity' on graduation plans, ask for more input in commencement decision-making

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Matthew Helou dreamed of becoming the first person in his family to walk across a college graduation stage. 

Helou, a senior biochemistry major, will graduate in May. But he worries that won’t involve the traditional commencement ceremony he’d always imagined. 

On April 6, UB President Satish Tripathi emailed graduating students and said UB officials were planning online commencement ceremonies for the Class of 2020 and that administrators were “optimistic” about hosting an on-campus celebration later in the year.  Students like Helou, however, believe that a “celebration” would not offer the same experience as a commencement. Minutes after Tripathi sent the email, Helou published a petition on “Change.org” requesting that Tripathi and other administrators postpone the Class of 2020’s ceremony and reconsider the virtual commencement. 

Helou’s petition amassed more than 1,000 signatures within a day. Now it has nearly 3,500.

Helou says he’s concerned the email’s “careful choice of words” does not “guarantee any sort of true commencement experience” for UB’s May graduates. 

“Until we are further informed by the administration what this ‘on-campus celebration’ is, we stand by this statement,” Helou wrote in an April 10 petition update. 

“We, the University at Buffalo’s Class of 2020, deserve the traditional, true and in-person commencement ceremonies that hundreds of thousands of UB graduates have had the privilege of participating in since 1846,” Helou said. 

Many signatures came from seniors disappointed that UB began planning an alternative commencement ceremony “without any consultation with the graduating student body,” Helou said. 

Helou and over 20 other graduating students emailed UB’s commencement coordinators, UB Provost A. Scott Weber and Tripathi on April 10 about the petition in hopes that they would take their requests into “consideration.”

Tripathi emailed Helou and other petitioners on April 11 and said that UB would remain committed to its decision to plan virtual ceremonies for the Class of 2020 and an “on-campus celebration” at a later date. The same statement was also published on UB’s COVID-19 website

Schools like the University Honors College and College of Arts and Sciences plan to use MarchingOrder to add a personal touch to virtual ceremonies. With MarchingOrder, graduates can input their photos, majors and personal messages onto a virtual slide. 

Helou says he understands the public-health dangers the pandemic poses and the importance of the university’s efforts to comply with social distancing guidelines. But, he says, his family already paid for his grandmother’s flight from Paris to Buffalo for the original ceremony, and Helou insists a virtual commencement experience would be less “valuable” than in-person commencement. 

“I can see the reason for an option like this, but strongly disagree with making virtual commencement the outcome for all students,” Helou said. “We should have some sort of say in this decision. It is very important to the Class of 2020.” 

Yousouf Amolegbe, Student Association president and a senior aerospace engineering student, signed and promoted the petition because he said he believes UB’s decision “disregarded” student input. 

“It only goes to show the level of disregard [the decision has] for the efforts, investments and sacrifices the graduating Class of 2020 has made thus to this point,” Amolegbe said. “We will not stand for it and are willing to go [to] any extent to make sure the university recognizes our concerns.” 

Amolegbe also said he believes UB’s decision goes against the standard set by other institutions across New York State. 

“There is no reason to hold [commencement] virtually when no other SUNY campus has chosen to take this direction yet, and NYU and Syracuse have literally promised their graduating classes [in-person ceremonies] this year,” Amolegbe said

Emma Patterson, a senior communication major, signed the petition and said she was disappointed by UB’s decision to host a virtual commencement ceremony against the wishes of the “majority” of this year’s graduating class. 

“The petition was a way to represent a majority of the students and the family members of graduates, and show that we deserve an in-person commencement,” Patterson said.  

Helou is hopeful that the “majority” will be enough to sway administrators to host an in-person commencement ceremony for the Class of 2020 when public health regulations become less stringent and Covid-19 infection rates decline. 

“As we are eclipsing 2,000 signatures in just under two days, I remain hopeful. I am hopeful that Dr. Tripathi will hear about this,” Helou said. “Ultimately, the Class of 2020 deserves a true in-person commencement and alternative options to ensure that people who cannot make it to Buffalo for a postponed commencement get an experience that they will remember and cherish forever.”

Elizabeth Napolitano is the assistant news editor and can be reached at elizabeth.napolitano@ubspectrum.com or on Twitter @LizKNapolitano.