FARMINGTON — The University of Maine at Farmington’s (UMF) graduating class of 2020 celebrated its  commencement virtually on May 8 and 9 using platforms such as Zoom, Instagram and Facebook to stream speeches and performances, to host a champagne toast and to post pictures and videos of students and faculty.

Students proposed a virtual commencement after the UMF campus was closed to the public on March 18 and courses were transferred to remote learning modalities due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Under the guidance of Ryan Mastrangelo from UMF’s Office of Marketing and Communications, the idea developed into a full blown, social media-driven series of events. UMF President Edward Serna addressed students and faculty during the first Zoom event on May 8 to offer his congratulations to the 374 graduates.

“This year’s graduates have accomplished their educational goals through the most challenging of times. We didn’t want to lose the celebration of them and their success on what should have been their commencement day,” Serna said in an email. “They needed to know how proud the entire Farmington family is of them. I hope that we were able to convey that.”

UMF President Serna joins members of the UMF Alumni Association in a Zoom toast to the Class of 2020. Photo courtesy of UMF

The number of participants fluctuated from 60 to well over 100 during the first Zoom event in which attendees could choose to either show their face on the screen or remain anonymous.

Graduate Cody Campbell opted to show his face and appreciated the opportunity to interact with his peers despite the platforms’ limitations.

“I think that it was nice to see everyone to celebrate together even though we were apart, and to be able to have that moment together one last time until the in-person ceremony,” he said over a video call.

UMF currently plans to hold a traditional, in-person graduation commencement on August 22, but has also established a backup plan if state restrictions still prohibit large gatherings.

“We are still optimistic. If we cannot hold commencement in August, our plan is to have two commencement ceremonies next May for both the class of 2020 and 2021,” Serna said.

Graduate Vanessa Jubai Brown is also optimistic for the August ceremony after feeling unfulfilled by the virtual celebrations which included a champagne toast over Zoom on May 9.

“After the champagne toast, I was kind of unimpressed. It’s gonna mean more to me when August comes around and the actual commencement is there; getting to hear from my peers, getting to actually be there in person, getting to see my professors and actually have that moment,” Brown said over a video call. “It kind of just felt like things were slapped together even though I felt like there was definitely time to put things more together.”

To celebrate commencement from home,Vanessa Jubai Brown posted a picture on UMF’s social media sites of her decorated, mock graduation cap with the acronym BWA which stands for “black women with ambition.” Photo Courtesy of Vanessa Juboi Brown

Campbell also felt as though the virtual celebrations could not replace the feelings of an in-person commencement, but he managed to recreate some of UMF’s traditions from his home in Lisbon.

“I was able to get dressed in my regalia, and I played the Farmington bagpipes while I walked down my hallway,” he said laughing. “I looked up last year’s commencement video, and I played the bagpipes so that I could get the full experience.”

Graduates such as Jake Michaud who were planning on skipping the commencement prior to the coronavirus pandemic, found aspects of the social media celebrations surprisingly endearing. More than 60 stories were posted by faculty, staff, students and community members on UMF’s Instagram which Michaud took his time viewing over the course of the day.

“It’s much easier for me to take in the words of my professors that I’ve known for years. It’s just much easier to take those words to heart than somebody who I have had no contact with,” Michaud said over a video call.

These short videos received more than 1,000 views. “That’s remarkable and definitely a community celebration,” Serna said.

Even though Michaud did not attend the Zoom speeches or the performance by the Maine-based band, GoldenOak, he was still impressed by UMF’s efforts to celebrate its 2020 graduates.

“It worked enough in some aspects, it just didn’t work enough to draw me in. I’m just sort of flabbergasted that organization is possible in times like these,” he said.

Now that graduates have completed the second-half of their last undergraduate semester remotely and have celebrated virtually, they have to navigate the job market and graduate program applications in a restricted economy.

Campbell, who studied secondary education with a concentration in English is currently looking for admissions counselor positions or residence life director positions.

“I am currently looking for jobs, and that’s a difficult field to go into because not a lot of places are hiring or are suspending hiring right now,” he said.

Both Michaud and Brown are leaving Farmington to move back in with their families as they apply to graduate programs.

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