One of the largest gatherings that attracts more than 1,000 students and guests is being cancelled because of COVID-19.
University of Hawai'i Spring 2020 commencement ceremonies across all 10 campuses will not be held this year. But UH said that students who would have walked in this semester's ceremonies will have the opportunity to participate when in-person commencement resumes.
"We want our students to continue their studies, thousands will graduate, even without commencement," UH President David Lassner said at the Board of Regents meeting on Thursday at Honolulu Community College.
Lassner, trying to fight back tears, said the decision was not easy.
"It is harder than 9/11, it is harder than the great recession...," he said. "It's touching everyone, it's been hard already and it will continue to get harder as we see the impacts on the state."
"But we will get through it and it will be over," he added.
UH Mānoa's Spring 2020 commencement ceremony was expected to be held on May 16 at the Stan Sheriff Center.
The announcement comes after a day that Lassner said that all classes will be held online for the remainder of the semester.
For many graduating seniors, the announcement sparked mixed reactions.
"Honestly, I'm heartbroken," senior English major Kanani Smull said. "I never graduated from high school, so this was a big deal to me. But I understand the severity of COVID-19 and just want everyone to stay healthy and safe."
Some students are also first-generation college students.
"I’m the first on my mom’s side of the family to graduate, and I paid for 90% of my tuition with hard earned scholarships," Kate Ozawa, senior political science major, said. "I worked hard for this, and I’m heartbroken that I won’t have the opportunity to walk in my cap and gown."
Although Lassner said that "the campuses may consider postponing ceremonies to a future date or creating alternatives to the traditional ceremonies," some students said it is not the same.
"So many students would have left by then, it is basically pointless," senior Jen Tandy, a human development and family studies major, said.
"I am completely devastated from the news of commencement being canceled," she added. "My whole life has been leading up to this moment and it is being taken away from me and so many others. I feel as if all of my hard work was just thrown away."
Communications and Spanish major Andrew Tsunoda said that he likes the idea of letting students walk in the next ceremony, but the participants might be low.
"With UH being so diverse, so many people come from all over to attend this institution," he said. "With that being said, I believe it’s great for those to receive a proper commencement ceremony, however, many students might be off island, possibly being back home."
Carol Ann Carl, a senior pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in biochemistry feels that cancelling the ceremonies takes away the chance to represent her community.
"Reading the commencement cancellation email from President Lassner was very saddening. As students, we work really hard to earn these degrees and commencement is the institution's official way to celebrate our accomplishments. As a Pohnpeian from the Federated States of Micronesia, and I'm sure this applies to the majority of Pacific Islander students, walking across that stage and hearing your name blasted on those speakers is not just my accomplishment. It's the accomplishment of my parents, my family, my entire community," Carl said. "So it was saddening that I wouldn't get the opportunity to carry my community with me across that stage and get that degree. Show off that Micronesian excellence that, a lot of times, isn't credited to us."
However, Carl understands that the decision was a difficult one to make and appreciates the measures taken in regards to public health.
"At the same time, reading Lassner's cancellation decision was a relief because, since my accomplishment is a community one, a lot of my elders were planning to come. Right now, the health of my parents, my family, my entire community is a priority, so I respect and agree with President Lassner's decision to cancel Spring 2020 commencement. I'm sure the decision was a hard one. A degree is something to celebrate, but if commencement might jeopardize the health of my elders, then that degree should not supersede the risk of losing ancestral knowledge that I could never get from western academic institutions."
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Co-Managing Editor Kailanniana Ablog has contributed to this post.