Graduates and their families gather at the Cajundome on Fri., Aug. 3, 2018 for the summer commencement exercises.

COVID-19 caused most events this spring to be rescheduled or canceled, and graduation is no exception, but the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s decision to hold a virtual commencement ceremony rather than reschedule the Spring 2020 Commencement Ceremony without removing or lowering the $90 graduation fee left many graduating seniors up in arms.

Instead of receiving their diplomas in person, UL Lafayette will mail graduating seniors their diplomas, and graduates will take photos of themselves in a cap and gown to send to the university. UL Lafayette will then use these photos to put together a virtual commencement ceremony using a service called StageClip.

UL Lafayette Vice President DeWayne Bowie, Ph.D., acknowledged that the decision to host the Spring 2020 Commencement Ceremony online was likely to be a major disappointment for graduating seniors in an email.

"We realize that a virtual ceremony cannot replace an in-person commencement ceremony," Bowie said in the email.

UL Lafayette still requires students graduating this spring to pay the regular $90 graduation fee, and it offered a $10 discount code for caps and gowns. Caps and gowns cost $50.46 according to the Ragin’ Cajuns Store. This means spring 2020 graduates would have to pay over $130 for a virtual commencement ceremony.

According to the “Fast Facts” page on UL Lafayette’s website, roughly 3,000 students graduate from UL Lafayette each year. If half that amount, 1,500 students, are graduating in spring this year, then UL Lafayette will collect $135,000 in graduation fees for their virtual commencement.

According to the StageClip website, the price of a virtual graduation ceremony starts at $1,495. Universities can also pay for an “alumni survey feature,” which costs $1 per student, a “SnapChat Lens,” the price of which starts at $495, and a full graduate procession, the price of which starts at $950. Assuming 1,500 students are graduating, the price of a virtual commencement ceremony through StageClip would add up to only $4,440, $130,560 less than what UL Lafayette will collect in student fees, provided UL Lafayette qualifies for the prices StageClip promotes on their website.

Even if UL Lafayette is forced to pay ten times more than the promotional price, the university would still have $90,600 leftover from the graduation fees collected from spring 2020 graduates.

UL Lafayette has not published the cost of printing diplomas.

Alisha Chavis, a graduating senior in speech pathology and audiology, said the university should tell students where exactly the $90 fee is going.

“I think they should give us clarity on what the fee went to, and if it goes to something that won’t be used, then I think they need to give us our money back,” Chavis said.

UL Lafayette Senior Communications Representative Eric Maron declined to comment on the graduation fee, and Bowie did not respond to a request for comment.

Since UL Lafayette President Joseph Savoie announced the plans for graduation on Thursday, April 9, a petition titled “Give UL’s Spring 2020 Grads a Proper Graduation Ceremony” gathered over 1,800 signatures as of Wednesday, April 15.

April Pruitt, a graduating senior in Biology and the Fall 2019 Homecoming Queen, said she burst into tears when she heard how UL Lafayette was handling her graduation.

“I was selected as the Outstanding Graduate for the College of Sciences. And so I won’t be able to walk with the other amazing Outstanding Graduates, be recognized in front of everyone and shake President Savoie’s hand and shake Dean Azmy Ackleh’s hand,” Pruitt said. “When I read it I actually cried because this is something that I’m being deprived of, and I’m grieving it as a loss.”

Sophia Davis, a graduating senior in Political Science at UL Lafayette, said she was both disappointed and surprised to find out that her graduation would be virtual.

“It’s been just kind of like a running joke that we would have a virtual commencement, and so I didn’t really think that that’s what they would choose. And yet, they did,” Davis said.

In addition to the virtual ceremony, UL Lafayette announced it would honor its spring 2020 graduates at a football game in the future, but many students found the gesture pointless.

Cheramie Faith Wagoner, who wished not to comment directly to The Vermilion, voiced her concerns about UL Lafayette’s plans Spring 2020 Commencement, especially the plan to honor spring 2020 graduates at a football game, in a public Facebook post which had 302 likes, 32 comments and 411 shares as of Wednesday, April 15.

“I love UL with my entire soul, and graduation has been the thing I’ve looked forward to the most. Now, I have been stripped of the opportunity to walk across that Cajundome stage and get my diploma. But hey, at least the Spring class of 2020 will get a celebration no one will attend and a shout out in a half empty stadium,” Wagoner said in the post.

Davis also found the celebration at the football game to be an insultingly insufficient replacement for a traditional graduation ceremony.

“I personally have never gone to a UL football game, and I definitely won’t go to a football game where they’re gonna congratulate us or whatever they said,” she said. “I think that was the most ridiculous part of the whole everything.”

Pruitt said the tone of a football game isn’t an appropriate environment to honor college graduates.

“In my opinion, a football game has no weight in comparison to graduation. A football game is for entertainment,” Pruitt said. “You spend a significant chunk of your life preparing for this, working hard, taking numerous hours, doing extracurriculars, doing all of this to be celebrated at graduation, and a football game is not the same.”

UL Lafayette welcomed spring 2020’s graduating class to the Summer 2020 or Fall 2020 Commencement Ceremonies, but Wagoner said this wasn’t nearly enough.

“I would like to note, though, the email did state that we are ‘welcome’ to walk at Summer or Fall commencement. This may seem like a sweet gesture, but it honestly upset me even more. I don’t want to be ‘welcome’, I want to be intentionally included. By eliminating our ceremony altogether and not officially including us in another ceremony, you are showing us that we are not worthy of your effort. That our achievements and legacy are not worthy of your energy. We have already lost so much as a graduating class. We deserve more than ‘welcome’,” she said in the Facebook post.

According to an email sent by Savoie, the decision to hold the Spring 2020 Commencement Ceremony online was determined by a survey conducted by SGA in mid-March.

While Davis and Wagoner said they thought the university handled the COVID-19 outbreak well so far, they said the university should have rescheduled the ceremony instead.

“UL’s been doing a good job handling the situation and I know there are bigger things going on right now and they’re just trying to do what’s best for everybody, but it’s still a definite disappointment for the people who have put in the hours and hours and thousands of dollars to get to this point and graduate,” Davis said.

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