ROCKFORD — As medical student Joshua Baalman introduced himself Saturday during the virtual commencement ceremony at the University of Illinois College of Medicine Rockford, he apologized for his shaggy hair and the puppy noises.
The puppy was in the background because Baalman was delivering his commencement address from home, where he was finishing the final months of the final semester of his final year of medical school.
His hair was shaggy for the momentous occasion because Baalman had been unable to get a haircut while complying with the statewide stay-at-home order intended to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Baalman noted the unusual circumstances with jokes and casual observations but then delivered a typical graduation address filled with ample parts reflection and inspiration for his 53 classmates.
"This is definitely not the way that I thought the last few months before graduation would go. It's really been an experience, hasn't it? It's not over yet," Baalman said. "We went (from) celebrating the winter holidays and enjoying the Super Bowl to emptying the shelves of toilet paper and hand sanitizer of nearly every single store that had them. We closed schools, canceled match day, are having a virtual graduation and watched the world respond to a global pandemic from the confines of your own homes, those lucky enough to have that luxury."
The ceremony was livestreamed and has since been posted to YouTube. Only five faculty members attended in person. They were in full academic regalia and face masks. The rest of the participants — graduates, friends, family members and the college staff — watched from afar.
Similar virtual graduation ceremonies will be taking place across the country this month as community colleges, universities, professional schools and other institutions celebrate the accomplishments of the graduating class of 2020.
College leaders agree that the online ceremonies provide a disappointing end to a school year like no other. As with in-person instruction, nothing can replace an in-person celebration. Still, they hope students and their families will appreciate and enjoy virtual commencement and not let the lack of a large public gathering lessen their sense of accomplishment.
"The inability to be together does not diminish the significance of this day," Dr. Alex Stagnaro-Green, regional dean of the U of I College of Medicine Rockford, said during Saturday’s online ceremony. "We, the faculty and staff at the University of Illinois College of Medicine Rockford, rejoice in graduating all of you and feel confident in your knowledge, abilities and compassion.
"We know you will make outstanding physicians. Yet we must pause to acknowledge that you're graduating in the midst of a worldwide pandemic."
Rock Valley College will be hosting a virtual graduation ceremony for its 700 spring 2020 graduates on June 5.
That is the day that the ceremony will officially go online. The work has already started.
Graduates were able to pick up their caps and gowns last week. They will be asked to film themselves walking, wearing their caps and gowns, and those video clips will be incorporated into the final product.
"We wanted to be able to have that ceremony have the same elements as a traditional graduation ceremony," said Beth Young, Rock Valley’s interim president. "We will still have a student speaker. We're still going to have a faculty address. The president will still speak. Our faculty members that read off the students’ names will still continue to do that."
Students are welcome to come to campus, Young said, to take photos, too. Of course, they have to continue to practice social distancing.
"We want them to have as much of the traditional experience as possible," Young said. "If they want to come and get photos of themselves in their caps and gowns with their diploma covers, we want them to do that."
Rockford University’s prerecorded virtual graduation ceremony will be launched online at 2 p.m. May 17, the same date and time of the college’s now-canceled traditional ceremony.
Degrees will be given to 335 students.
"We're hoping that as many of our graduates and families and faculty and staff as possible will get online and kind of have a shared experience at 2 p.m. May 17, but it'll be available for viewing after that as well," said Rockford University President Eric Fulcomer.
Similar to the College of Medicine Rockford and Rock Valley, each RU graduate will get a personal slide that will include their name, a photo and a message to be incorporated into the virtual ceremony.
Fulcomer recorded his address to students last week.
"This is not at all the ceremony that we imagined that we would be having this spring," he said, looking into a camera as he stood in his cap and gown. "We were looking forward to gathering together at the Coronado theater in downtown Rockford with a theater full of graduates, families, faculty and friends.
"But just about every aspect of our lives have been affected by COVID-19, the global pandemic that has led to stay-at-home orders and the cancellation of gatherings large and small."
Rockford University also plans to honor spring 2020 graduates a second time this fall during homecoming festivities, Fulcomer said.
If public health requirements can be met, the university will host a commencement ceremony on campus during homecoming weekend.
"The only thing that would prevent us from doing that is if large gatherings are still prohibited at that time," Fulcomer said.
The fall ceremony is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 4.
Corina Curry: firstname.lastname@example.org; @corinacurry