Virtual graduation ceremonies driven by digital production crews

By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook staff writer

In the era of coronavirus, the sounds and sights of a graduation ceremony will be a lot different than graduates from Florida State, FAMU and TCC have come to know it.

Spring graduation will be about sitting anywhere and staring at the screen of an electronic device – laptop or desktop computers and in some cases cell phones. Such a production is just as labor intensive as setting up an arena to host thousands students and their families.

And just like it would be difficult to stage a graduation without chairs, the planned virtual graduations won’t be going on without a highly trained production crew.

TCC is putting on its ceremony with an in-house crew behind the production, while FSU and FAMU have turned to some of the seasoned companies to push their ceremonies in the virtual world.

Graduates of FSU, FAMU and TCC will experience their first virtual graduation this weekend.
Photo special to the Outlook

Work on bringing the digital graduation together began right after students ended spring break at TCC in late March, said Rachel Palmer, Media Production Coordinator at TCC. Instructions were sent to students informing them how to upload photos of themselves to be used during the virtual ceremony, she said.

The work took her production staff several weeks to be completed, Palmer said, adding that students were enthusiastic about the role they had in making the event happen.

“There has been some sadness over missing out on a commencement ceremony but a lot of them are very excited about the future,” Palmer said. “For the most part, they are very excited and we’re excited to give them a chance to share their experiences.”

Stage Clip is the outside production company that FAMU found to put on its graduation. The ceremony will include most of the traditional pomp and circumstance, said Rupert Forsyth, CEO of the three-year-old company.

Although the logistics are labor-intensive and include several personnel, only one person will flip the start button to get the graduation going across YouTube premier, he said.

“The way we are putting on these events is by using student or user-generated content for that personal affect,” Forsyth said during a telephone interview from England, where he is based. “We take all these in a lot of different forms, bring them together, curate them and create a ceremony.”

Forsyth said his company has done similar productions throughout the world and across the United States. Their history includes working with FSU, Arkansas State University and Missouri Western University.

However, this is the first time that a pandemic has forced his company into action.

“This is a way of recognizing individuals at a time they should be recognized in a very challenging world,” Forsyth said. “In the meantime, we can still do things with technology that recognize them as individuals and at the same time create a communal moment on line where friends and family can come and participate.”

TCC kicked off it celebration last Friday with a two-hour virtual party for its graduate via the school’s Youtube page. That followed a week of digital interaction with graduates, which will culminate at 6 p.m. with a graduation video on Saturday. 

FSU will also host its on-line graduation on Saturday, beginning at 2 p.m. The ceremony will be shown on three channels – live.FSU.org, YouTube.com/floridastate and Facebook.com/floridastate. At 6:30 p.m. Saturday, the ceremony will also be televised on Comcast cable channel 4.

FAMU’s graduation is schedule for May 9.  FAMU also will staged a separate video recognition of its student-athletes Friday on YouTube. 

The virtual graduation ceremony is the latest twist that has been caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The student body at each institution has been taking classes on line since early March when Gov. Ron DeSantis announced a shutdown of campuses.  At that time the schools began to look into the possibility of virtual graduation ceremonies.

FAMU’s recognition of its student-athletes is an in-house production led by Brian Howard, sports information director. Some of the coordination was handled by Morgan Mitchell, president of student-athletes Advisory Committee, Howard said.

The pre-graduation celebration of student-athletes was inspired by the abrupt end to spring sports, Mitchell said.

“We are just trying find things that will keep them engaged, keep them happy during this time of COVID-19,” said Mitchell, a liaison between student-athletes and athletic administration. “A lot of our athletes didn’t have a season and this took a toll on them.”

Softball catcher Alexis Blasingane, a St. Petersburg native, is one of 28 student-athletes who will graduate next weekend. The disruption caused by coronavirus upended big plans that she had for her family to travel from Georgia and South Florida for a live ceremony, she said.

The affect that the virus has had on the team’s season in coach Veronica Wiggins’ final year, has left her “very flabbergasted,” Blassingane said.

“I was distraught by it but I’m hoping it will work out,” she said. “I’m just glad that we are having some kind of ceremony.

“It’s just a reminder that we came here and conquered what we were supposed to conqueror and we’re leaving with what we’re suppose to leave with and that’s an education. That’s a degree.”