A graduating new mom in full regalia made her way through the College Park Marriott Hotel & Conference Center. She scanned her personalized barcode and a computerized voice read her name. With her baby in her arms, she approached the stage, where University of Maryland Global Campus President Gregory Fowler handed her her diploma. Her family applauded and snapped photos from a reserved space just a few feet from the stage.
Smiling, she looked down at her baby and said, “We did it,” helping explain what a UMGC education and the university’s newly retooled, Covid-conscious and family-centered Commencement are all about.
“Family really contributes to this,” Dr. Fowler said.
Because of COVID, UMGC’s graduating classes of 2020 and 2021 were unable to march at graduation, and as the pandemic ground on, the university began exploring other scenarios.
Serena Williams, associate director of Commencement Services, noticed that other schools were hosting ceremonies that allowed graduates to march individually, making it easier to social distance. With that as the starting point, she developed a concept tailored to UMGC.
“We made adjustments that really honored our university, our demographic, and our graduates,” said Angie Grant, acting director of Commencement Services.
In the process, UMGC reimagined the entire graduation experience, with a focus on students, their wants and needs, as well as the health and safety of graduates, guests, and community members.
In a typical commencement, graduates sit with classmates while friends and family members sit in the audience. They listen to speeches and watch their classmates cross the stage. When their moment arrives, it is fleeting, and loved ones often struggle to catch a glimpse of the graduate.
UMGC’s Grad Walk 2022, held May 17 to 22, offered a completely different experience.
Graduates and families arrived in Adelphi and entered the venue together. They remained together until it was time for the graduate to cross the stage and receive his or her diploma, and guests enjoyed an unobstructed view of the stage. If they needed an extra moment to capture photos or videos, or if graduates wanted to march with a friend or family member, they were encouraged to do so. (Professional photographers and videographers were also on-site to ensure that each graduate would receive personalized images and footage.)
Over the course of six days, more than 3,300 graduates—from the classes of 2020, 2021, and 2022—crossed the stage. Those who wanted a more traditional commencement experience could view a recorded ceremony on demand which included a keynote address, a student speaker, and the conferral of their degrees by President Fowler. Including graduates and their guests, more than 23,000 people participated in the Grad Walk.
“We paid attention to what graduates really want (based on previous post-commencement surveys and other feedback),” said Grant. “They want to hear their name called, to cross the stage, receive their diploma from the president, have their family and friends be there to celebrate them, and be able to share the moment on social media. This event brings those experiences together. They get a chance to be honored and celebrated, and in a way that reduces the risk for everyone.”
In an online post, student speaker Jayla Nowlin wrote of being filled with gratitude. “I finally got to walk across the stage and be celebrated with my family,” she said. “Every detail was exceptional.”
Grad Walk received other accolades, as well. One graduate, a U.S. Marine information technology professional stationed in Hawaii, posed for a photo with his wife and two children, one of whom wore his sailor cap. Another graduate tweeted, “Finished my degree in 2020, but got to take my UMGC Grad Walk today!” Yet another, with his foot kicked high in the air, tweeted, “Another degree knocked down!”
A post on LinkedIn thanked Dr. Fowler for taking the time to meet with graduates as they exited the room.
“You make it easy for veterans to enroll and work through the required processes,” one graduate wrote. Another, also on LinkedIn, added, “Year and a half later, I finally got to walk! What made it better? I got to do it with my husband who graduated this year!”
Fowler and other university leaders spent hours on site every day, distributing degrees and meeting graduates, family members, and guests as they waited in line or, afterward, in a designated “celebration zone,” along with representatives of the UMGC Alumni Association.
Graduates could take photos in front of Maryland-themed backdrops and write messages on a signature wall, which President Fowler was the first to sign.
“We talk about the idea of changing lives. And we are not talking about just the individual, though clearly that’s important,” said Fowler. “If you change one life, you change a family’s life. You change a family’s life, you change a community’s life.”
Fowler went on to compare the role of university faculty and staff to that of sherpas.
“Our job is to walk side-by-side with the students, as they are having the experience. They still have to climb the mountain, but we want to make sure that they know we are there with them every step of the way,” he said.
“In many cases, we have anticipated the places where they are going to struggle. We have tried to make it as easy as we can. We have got to keep our eye on them to see if they are having altitude sickness, or if they are having issues along the way. If you are having math class anxiety, we want to make sure we anticipate that and figure out how to help. If you are going to be promoted or you need to step away from your job, we want to anticipate that.”
Many UMGC students deploy or move overseas, and UMGC must anticipate that as well. The “big lesson,” Fowler said, is that the university is here to help smooth out friction, as well as to give students space to be successful.
During Grad Walk, Fowler got to meet graduates in person and hear their stories firsthand.
One student was homeless before finally landing a job. Another homeschooled seven children while studying at UMGC. A third deployed while still continuing to pursue a degree. It isn’t uncommon for students to report that it has taken them a decade or more to complete their degrees, with family or military responsibilities periodically interrupting their progress.
“I think that is amazing,” Fowler said. “When you hear stories like, ‘We were out in the field with our night vision goggles, reading the book, because we wanted to get the degree done’—it is just unimaginable if you are only thinking about the traditional college coming-of-age experience.”
Even that concept got a non-traditional twist at Grad Walk. Nailah Gibson, who at only 19 years old, became the first Prince George’s 3D scholar to earn her bachelor’s degree. The PG3D scholarship program allows high school students to earn community college credit while still in high school, which allows them to speed up the time to a community college degree and then transfer directly into UMGC to complete an undergraduate degree, all for $10,000 or less.
Also participating in Grad Walk was Mae Beale, who received her degree the day after celebrating her 82nd birthday. Her heartwarming story and inspiring message of perseverance and commitment to life-long learning garnered national media attention, including a moving feature on ABC “World News Tonight with David Muir.”
Another octogenarian had finally earned her degree after a nearly 50-year journey that included attending many of the other schools in the University System of Maryland. With Grad Walk enabling close proximity of graduates to their families and friends as they walk across the stage, one graduate received a marriage proposal immediately after leaving the stage (the proposal was accepted!).
Stories like these make up “the magic that is UMGC,” Fowler said, adding how proud he is to be able to accommodate the unique needs of nontraditional students and to bring the university’s years of experience to bear on commencement as well.
“Do not be surprised if you see some version of this happening in a number of places where we do graduations,” he said.