More than 4,300 students completing their degrees at Georgia Southern University after the unexpected shift to online-only courses this spring will have their names called in a series of eight "virtual commencement" ceremonies Friday and Saturday, May 8-9.
Georgia Southern officials still plan to hold an in-person spring or summer ceremony at a later, so far undetermined date once COVID-19 social distancing advisories are lifted. They have also invited these graduates, if they prefer, to take part in the fall commencement in December.
The separate online ceremonies for Georgia Southern's eight subject-area colleges will be streamed at specific times over the course of the two days at www.GeorgiaSouthern.edu/Commencement and also on the university's Facebook page. The commencement page includes a schedule.
"What we've done is we've pre-recorded comments from the provost, the president and all of the deans, at a podium in full regalia, and then we will use those remarks and splice them together in a video format in front of individual slides that will recognize each graduate from each college," said John Lester, GS vice president for university communications and marketing.
Further, a series of celebrity speakers contributed brief congratulatory videos specifically for Georgia Southern.
Three of these celebs are Matt Breida, the former Eagles football player who, now with the San Francisco 49ers, played in the most recent Super Bowl; Cole Swindell, the Georgia Southern marketing major better known as a country singer and songwriter; and Chick-fil-A President and CEO Dan Cathy, a GS business alumnus. But there will be others.
The graduating students were also invited to submit a photo of themselves and a brief quote of appreciation or dedication. About half of them, more than 2,000 of the 4,342 students eligible to participate, contributed photos and quotes, Lester said. That total includes 3,190 actual spring graduates and 1,152 students expected to complete their final courses summer session.
Faculty members will call the names, one-by-one, as a slide with each graduating student's name, the name of their college, their degree and, if submitted, their portrait and message appears.
For students will did not provide a photo and message, their name and degree will also appear on a slide, but with a generic image, such as Freedom the eagle, Lester said.
Georgia Southern University President Kyle Marrero and Provost Carl Reiber reportedly recorded the same remarks for all of the ceremonies, and the same celebrity clips will appear. But the college deans will have separate remarks for their colleges.
A small group of staff members got together and started planning this approach "immediately after we had to make the unfortunate announcement to cancel the in-person ceremony," Lester said.
"We're excited to provide this opportunity for our students. We think we may be one of the first (universities) in the state or maybe even the country to put together something like this, and hopefully the students will count it as another way that we are treating them special, even in these times."
GS Chief Information Officer Ron Stalnaker served as the project manager, and his team set up the database for the students to submit their photos and notes of thanks, Lester said. Then the registrar emailed graduates the request.
But the university's Emmy Award-winning Media Development Center produced the videos. The MDC is the outfit, based in the Gene Bishop Field House at Paulson Stadium, that produces video from all of the Eagles' major sports throughout the year, including footage regularly used by ESPN, as well as academic programming.
In addition to its full-time employees, the MDC regularly employs 25 students at a time from various fields of study, and receives help from others as volunteers. With most student workers away but spring sports cancelled, the center had resources to make commencement videos.
MDC Director Art Berger noted that the videos will remain available online after the original livestream times.
"It's going to be really nice, I think, for famlies and students, and they can have this forever. This will be a piece that they can download," he said, "and they can watch it together and comment online as it's being streamed live, so it is a way that we can bring our families and our students and our faculty together in a time when everyone is really separated."
To watch with family
Graduating senior Brian Cox, 24, from Richmond Hill, was the only MDC-employed student who worked directly in production of the virtual commencement videos. He edited the slides to make sure students' photos and messages were in the right order.
"Yeah, I'll probably be watching it live if I can Friday morning," Cox told the Statesboro Herald. "I might be back in Richmond Hill to watch it with my parents and grandparents."
He probably won't come back for an in-person graduation later, he said. A computer science major, Cox has landed a full-time job with a web development company in Augusta starting June 1 and will be moving there in May.
Would rather walk
Franchette O'Neal, 22, also worked with the MDC previously but wasn't involved in producing the commencement videos. Instead, she was busy taking four classes to complete her bachelor's degree, majoring in multimedia film.
One of those classes involves working with three other students to produce a short film. They finished filming before classes went all-online, and O'Neal has been editing the work.
For the better Wi-Fi access she needed, she moved out of her Statesboro apartment and has been staying with her grandparents in Jesup. Because her father, also a GS graduate, serves in the military, O'Neal grew up in multiple countries, and her parents are now in Germany.
She noted that she is actively looking for a job.
"I think my parents really want to see me walk, so they'll probably watch the virtual commencement, but I don't know if I plan on it," O'Neal said.
The actual graduation "walk" is a part that's missing, so it feels important to her to participate in one of the live ceremonies when her parents can come back and attend. That may be the one in December, she said.
May do both
Deaundra Green, who graduated from high school in Snellville and later from LaGrange College, will be 24 next week and getting a master's degree in music technology at Georgia Southern. Also with the MDC, she handled sound and videostreaming controls for the in-person commencements in May and December 2019.
She said she hopes to participate in an in-person ceremony later, but will also be watching with interest next weekend.
"Sometimes I think the allure of commencement is being able to see the people that you're graduating with and allow them to hear you cheering for them ... but I really don't have any doubt that with the MDC being involved with the virtual commencement, they will make every student feel as special and appreciated as if it were an in-person commencement," Green said.