The journey to create UBC's first ever virtual graduation ceremony

Written by: Matthew Ramsey, on behalf of UBC Internal Communications
June 2020

A picture of Santa Ono being filmed for graduation

It was February 2020 and things were going according to plan for UBC’s graduation ceremony organization teams in Vancouver and the Okanagan.

And then suddenly, everything changed and the old plans no longer applied.

The possible implications of COVID-19 on university operations, including the spring graduation ceremonies for the class of 2020, were becoming clear.

Within weeks, health officials would limit gatherings to 250 or less, then 50 or less, on-campus research would be curtailed, classes would be shifted online and graduation postponed as the university reacted to the global pandemic.

Students, faculty and staff shifted so quickly that at times academic, personal and professional life felt like blindfolded rickety wooden roller coaster rides.

For Liz King, Director of Ceremonies and Events at UBC Vancouver and Alanna Vernon, Associate Director of Ceremonies and Events at UBC Okanagan, COVID-19 restrictions meant considering the implications and finding a way forward together.

“We started talking about the implications for graduations in late February,” recalls Liz. “Discussion really picked up in the first week of March and by mid-March we knew we would have to rethink everything. We knew we had to pivot and we knew the pivot would be to a virtual ceremony. We just didn’t know what that would look like or how to do it so we started brainstorming across both campuses to find one path forward.”

Announcing the postponement of graduation and the shift to a virtual format was difficult, says Santa Ono, President and Vice-Chancellor.

“Graduating from university is a momentous occasion for students and we all felt very much like we did not want our graduating students to leave UBC without marking the occasion properly,” says Santa. “COVID-19 required a very creative shift.”

Alanna and Liz traveled to Hope from their respective campuses for a socially distant and quite symbolic meeting

The challenge was immense – to provide roughly 12,000 graduating students across two campuses something akin to a traditional grad ceremony, complete with the traditions graduating students have come to expect, at a time when all “normal” traditions are on pause.

“It has been a huge undertaking to combine many of the elements we would normally have at one of our ceremonies into a brand-new online experience, and to do it in a way that makes it as meaningful as possible to our hard-working graduating students,” Alanna explains.

“I’ve been touched by how the entire university, across both campuses, have come together and have worked incredibly hard to make this the best virtual graduation ceremony it can be.”

Alanna and Liz point to a road trip they each took as a prime example of the new ways their individual and combined teams needed to work together.

Alanna headed west from Kelowna and Liz east from Vancouver to meet in Hope.

“I had to pass along the UBC Okanagan mace and other ceremonial items to Liz in a socially distant and quite symbolic meeting in Hope,” explains Alanna. “I think it beautifully captures the lengths to which we’ll go to make this year’s ceremonies a success as well as the feelings we have for this year and for the future.”

Working together, the teams refined their plans in consultation with Deans, the President’s office, the Registrars and enrolment services, student leaders and alumni engagement teams.

“When you’re in the events world you expect highs and lows and ebbs and flows,” says Liz. “The planning here was at a heightened level and it was very intense. Even when I wasn’t working I was thinking about it constantly. The level of attention and interest in the graduation period is higher than any time before. Ever.”

When the event plan finally came together on paper, Liz and Alanna knew they had something unique and very special coming together.

At least 100 people across both campuses took part in the planning for the June 17 ceremonies, some of whom have never been involved before, some taking on new roles they may have never done before.

I’ve been touched by how the entire university, across both campuses, have come together and have worked incredibly hard to make this the best virtual graduation ceremony it can be

Alanna Vernon
Some speakers for this year's events are pre-recording their words for the June 17 ceremony

In addition to handling the daunting number of music, filming, lighting, live and pre-recorded segments made even more complex due to broadcast considerations, UBC Studios, UBC Audio Visual and Brand and Marketing have played key roles in tackling issues including the selection of the best platforms to host the events (Facebook, YouTube). Accessibility was also a focus, including work on captioning and sign language interpretation for what will be a global online audience.

The end result will include a digital guestbook, downloadable keepsakes for graduates and their families and friends, a ceremonial walk across the stage, filters so graduates can “wear” academic regalia, and a live address from Santa.

“Of course we can’t all be together in person right now, but I think the students will appreciate the effort that’s gone into this celebration,” says Santa. “I’m very much looking forward to it, and seeing the virtual pictures of the graduates and I. In future, when it is safe to do so, we will hold an in-person celebration on campus where the selfies can be in person.”

“Graduation is not just an event. It is a celebration and a chance to honour students and the faculty for their work and their achievement and resiliency. It was very important to me that a virtual ceremony include as many elements of a traditional ceremony as possible. So that’s the goal we set early on and I’m proud that we were able to get there together. ”

Looking ahead to June 17, Liz admits she has mixed emotions.

“I’m pretty excited and also a bit nervous. The biggest guiding principle for us is that this needs to feel like a graduation. This is the graduate’s moment. It’s their and their family’s and friend’s moment and it has to be special. What we’ve put together is authentic and meaningful and it’s very, very UBC.”

Find out more about virtual graduation and how to participate.

Graduation is not just an event. It is a celebration and a chance to honour students and the faculty for their work and their achievement and resiliency

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