This article originally appeared in The Humanist (May 8, 2020).

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned our world upside down. Nowhere is this more true than on college campuses. Seven weeks ago, colleges and universities began to close down in compliance with state and federal advice to stay at home and avoid spreading the novel coronavirus that has become the central feature of our lives.

At the Secular Student Alliance, we immediately began retooling to meet our students’ needs. It didn’t take long for us to realize that not being able to go to class in person and the fear of getting sick was only the beginning of the challenges facing our students. There was real grief about the sudden truncation of their college career. The president of the Secular Student Alliance at University of Texas Arlington, Charlee Vance, captured the feeling perfectly when she wrote on Facebook:

And just like that I went to my last class, last meeting of the student group I started two years ago, last time on campus as an undergrad and I had no idea.

Nationwide, students who have worked incredibly hard are not getting the graduation ceremony they deserve and expect. A major rite of passage for many young people has simply been erased by the public health crisis.

In response, the Secular Student Alliance is organizing a virtual graduation celebration for our students and their families and friends. The graduation ceremony will feature a commencement speech by atheist/humanist activist and actor John de Lancie (best known for his role as Q on Start Trek: The Next Generation), as well as reflections from some of our student leaders, congratulations from secular leaders, and the naming of our student graduates and their accomplishments.

Right now we’re in the process of sending caps, tassels, and honor cords to all graduates who request them. Some students already have regalia from their college or university, but a surprising number do not. During the event, as we call their names, photos of the graduates wearing their regalia will be displayed on the screen along with their accomplishments. The regalia, along with a certificate each graduate will receive at the conclusion of the event, will help them remember this time and look back on their graduation with fondness, even if it’s tinged with some sadness.

We know this celebration doesn’t replace their official in-person graduation ceremony, but we want them to know that we’re proud of them and give the secular community a moment to pause and celebrate.

The event will take place via Zoom on Saturday, May 30, starting at 5pm ET and will be broadcast live via Facebook and YouTube. Everyone is invited to attend. We also welcome all students who planned to walk in their graduation in 2020 to join us. You don’t need to have been involved with SSA prior to this. We want to celebrate you!

Closed captioning and American Sign Language interpretation will be provided. All the information about how to participate, either as a graduate or a guest, is at the Secular Student Alliance website at secularstudents.org/graduation.

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