For the second year in a row, Columbia College Chicago will be holding a virtual Commencement ceremony due to the coronavirus pandemic, and a group of graduating seniors from the private school is challenging that decision, saying a virtual ceremony is not an option for them.
"I can’t even imagine sitting at home looking at faces in a computer, accepting that and being OK," said Jahmelah Miller, who is a senior at the school.
Jahmelah and her classmate, Nathan Branch, launched an initiative called "Commence Anyways," aiming to raise funds and to host their own in-person graduation ceremony.
"We are older, non-traditional students. I barely graduated high school… she’s been on and off again for 17 years. We just want to provide that in-person opportunity for the students," said Branch.
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Jahmelah and Nathan have only known each other virtually, but share a bond over this mission. On Wednesday morning, they finally met in person outside of the Columbia College Student Center to tell us about their efforts.
"We’ve been in class with each other almost a whole year virtually and to say we’re going to just see each other's faces on screen graduation day. Well, I’ve been doing that for 30 weeks now and that’s no longer an option. I want to be next to him or six feet away and at least have that moment," said Miller.
Together and with the help of other students and faculty, they wrote letters to the school administration, created an online fundraiser, a social media campaign and even made a survey to find out if other seniors feel the same way.
"We have almost 300 surveyed students, 80% of them seniors who said yes, we want that experience… we want to be able to walk across the stage," said Branch.
Among those students, is Michael Anthony Cuevas. An Animation major at Columbia College, Cuevas is also scheduled to graduate this spring.
"More than anything, it's a sense of accomplishment," said Cuevas, who is finally graduating from college, after taking a 10-year break. "I’ve worked so hard to get to that point, it would mean so much to walk across the stage to receive my diploma, especially to see my family see me do that after all these years."
The campaign has proved to be successful so far, according to Jahmelah. They're building partnerships with potential sponsors who may soon help them reach their goal.
Ideally, they'll raise enough funds to allow some 700-800 students hold an in-person ceremony in an outdoor venue, following CDC guidelines.
In a written statement, Columbia College officials said they appreciate the group's organized approach to address their concerns with the college. A representative from the Student Affairs Office met with the students to explain the college's position.
"Columbia’s faculty and staff are equally as disappointed we cannot hold an in-person commencement for the second year in a row. As much as we would prefer to celebrate with our students, their families, and friends in person, we must adhere to safety guidelines laid out by the city and state."
And while the students say there's still a lot of work to be done, they are determined to make the in person ceremony happen, one way or another.
"It’s very important to me, to us, and if it doesn’t happen, life will continue, people will move on, but we needed to try," said Branch.