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Lipscomb celebrates spring graduation season with virtual ceremonies

Commencement looked a little different this year, but the COVID-19 pandemic did not dampen the celebration of academic achievements of graduates.

Kim Chaudoin  | 

Lipscomb provost at graduation taping in empty Collins Auditorium

Lipscomb University Provost Craig Bledsoe at the filming of the 2020 virtual commencement ceremony.

See Video of the Undergraduate Commencement

See Video of the Graduate Commencement

This spring the Lipscomb community celebrated a graduation season like none other in the institution’s history. Traditionally the final days of the semester leading up to commencement on the first Saturday in May are filled with college ceremonies, graduation celebrations, commencement addresses and family gatherings as the Lipscomb community typically marks the end of a semester.

May 2020 commencement included the traditional sound of bagpipes, welcome from Professor Jim Thomas, conferring of degrees by Provost W. Craig Bledsoe, faculty charges, presidential address by L. Randolph Lowry, prayer by Board of Trustees chair David Solomon and the singing of the alma mater. 

But with the U.S. being in the midst of a nationwide period of isolation and graduation activities at thousands of universities cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Allen Arena, site of fall and spring commencement each year, sat silent and empty on Saturday, May 2. 

There were no families packed into the facility to celebrate their graduate’s achievement, no professors walking across campus in their brilliant academic regalia, no excited graduates donning their caps and gowns and lining up alphabetically and in order of their degrees in the tunnel of the arena. No walking across the stage to receive their diploma … in fact there was no stage even set up to walk across. 

Carl Mhlanga with his parents at a graduation party

Carl Mhlanga, BBA, Accounting: Finance, Zimbabwe

Yet, the day was still filled with celebration and recognition — virtual style. As is traditional, graduation day was highlighted by two commencements — one in the morning for students who earned master’s degrees, Education Specialist degrees and doctoral degrees, and an afternoon ceremony for students earning bachelor’s degrees. Every graduate’s name appeared on the screen with a backdrop of “Pomp and Circumstance,” and the provost presented every degree candidate to the president who officially conferred each degree. And families celebrated their graduates in their own unique way at their homes across the country and around the world.

The ceremonies aired live at their appointed time — 10:30 a.m. CT for graduate commencement and 3 p.m. CT for undergraduate commencement — on the university’s live webstream and on YouTube.

“We are giving up our Allen Arena moment in order to protect others. We recognize the world around us and we recognize the restrictions and so today is going to be a little bit different. But it’s still going to be very, very good,” Lowry said in pre-recorded remarks in a dark Allen Arena to begin each ceremony. 

“You know what? They can take away the celebration. But they can’t take away what we are celebrating which is your success, your tenacity and your achievement and that will always be with you,” he continued. 

Paul Prill, professor of communication and director of the Honors College who is retiring after more than 40 years at Lipscomb, gave the faculty charge to undergraduates. “Today you have more than a degree, you have an education,” he said. “You have knowledge and skills that go far beyond completing 126 plus hours of coursework. You know how to learn across different disciplines. You know how to develop strategies to stay on course. You know how to finish what you have started. You know how to adapt to the uncertainties you have already faced. You know how to wrap all of that into a life that has meaning because of your faith and your particular accomplishment.”

Olivia Malham posing in cap and gown

Olivia Malham, BA, Theology: Children's Ministry

“Now you get to do what every class before you has done,” he continued. “Take what you have learned into the uncharted territory of the future. We believe that you are well equipped to do what you have prepared to do professionally, personally and spiritually and to meet the challenges that await you.”

During the undergraduate ceremony, Bledsoe announced the Outstanding Teacher Awards that are awarded each spring. Recipients are recognized with a plaque and a $1,000 gift. Nominees were made by department chairs and student advisory councils for each college and then were voted on by faculty and the senior class. The 2019-20 Outstanding Teacher Award recipients are Sarah Duncan, associate professor of education; Chris Gonazlez, associate professor of psychology and marriage and family therapy; and Earl Lavender, professor of Bible. 

The Marsh Award is given each year to the senior student who plans to pursue a secular profession but whose Christlike character while a student has demonstrated a propensity to continue throughout life to be a light to the world, a servant to humanity, a worker in the church, devoted to family and a herald of their faith in Christ. This year’s recipient is Tanner Harris, a biology teaching major from Colorado Springs, Colorado. 

Roger Davis, vice provost for health affairs, gave the faculty charge during graduate commencement. Davis is the founding dean of Lipscomb’s College of Pharmacy which began in 2007. 

“I pray that you remember two words — optimism and character,” said Davis. “Your graduation comes at a most amazing point in the history of the world. One in which the basic questions of man’s humanity are being asked. … what we have learned in the last few weeks that what humanity needs the most is human contact, kindness and caring. The elements you possess by virtue of your education here and the innate Christlike character of your life are what are needed most by the world — your world — the world you will create.”

Grant Mitchell surfing in a graduation cap and gown

Grant Mitchell, BBA, Marketing, Nashville

“I say these things because I believe you have a most optimistic future,” he continued, “maybe one of the most promising of any generation to create and serve in the most impactive ways ever. Unparalleled opportunity to improve the world around you and to gain a life filled with positive outcomes. You will also learn that one of the biggest legacies you can leave is your character — Christlike character.”  

During the ceremony, Lowry gave his traditional presidential charge. In it he encouraged students to be proud in this moment. “Take a moment and be proud of your achievement. This represents years and years of work,” he said. “It’s a moment that recognizes your tenacity and it’s a moment to recognize your vision for your very own life.”

He also encouraged graduates to be grateful. “Think of the moments that framed this. It’s a moment to say, look what I have done, but it’s also a moment to look at those around you and recognize how they have helped you,” said Lowry. “There is a sea of people who have helped you get to this day. Send an email or text to someone who has invested in you to show gratitude.”

Lowry also encouraged students to, as they look forward, to see how they can use their training and education to recognize that they have an opportunity to leave Lipscomb and to be a servant. He highlighted several stories of Lipscomb alumni who are on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic to serve others. 

Carrie Cowart celebrating with her dad in front of the TV with her name shown

Carrie Cowart, MBA, Nashville

“Service. That DNA goes all the way back to the founding of this university,” noted Lowry as he shared a story of founder David Lipscomb serving the city of Nashville during the cholera epidemic in 1849-50. “I encourage you to think about this institution and your education and your opportunity to go forth with the same courage, conviction and impact on our world.” 

Following commencement, graduates will receive their diplomas, caps and gowns, graduate hoods and a few other items in a package sent to their homes as keepsakes. Members of the May 2020 class are also invited to return to campus to participate in fall commencement set for Dec. 19. 

Graduates found creative ways to celebrate commencement with their families at home. During the ceremony university officials asked graduates to share their celebration photos via email, Instagram and Facebook. At home celebrations included staged degree presentations from family members in backyards, walking across the “stage” in their living rooms as their names appeared on the screen, wearing a cap and gown while wake boarding on the lake, family Zoom celebrations and much more.  

While this was not the celebration that anyone in the Lipscomb community expected or wanted to have, when it became apparent due to city, state and health guidelines that spring commencement was not going to be able to take place as usual on campus, university officials went to work developing plans for celebrating and honoring its May graduates even with the disappointment of not being able to participate in the traditional ceremony this spring. The goal was to develop a virtual commencement that contained familiar elements of on-the-ground ceremonies of the past while honoring the academic accomplishments of the graduates. 

Noelle Lusk in cap and gown with a celebration sign

Noelle Lusk, BA, Family Science, Nashville

The Entertainment & Technical Services, led by Jamie Shankland, and Events Management teams spent days recreating the look of the graduation stage that is typically located in Allen Arena to the smaller Collins Alumni Auditorium in the heart of campus. Collins provided a set-up that was conducive to safe social distancing for participants while providing ample space for camera and sound equipment. 

For a period of several weeks program participants including Lowry, Bledsoe and other platform participants dressed up in their academic regalia and came to the Lipscomb campus in shifts to film their portions of commencement that became part of the live virtual broadcast on May 2. Mike Fernandez, dean of the George Shinn College of Entertainment & the Arts, oversaw the production of the ceremonies that were filmed and edited by ETS. Josh Shaw, senior marketing videography manager, also assisted with a portion of the production.  

In addition to these events, the university’s traditional baccalaureate was streamed live in a virtual format the evening before graduation day and colleges and other programs hosted a series of virtual celebrations in the days leading up to commencement or following the ceremonies on May 2. 

Pionero Scholar Elisa Martinez in cap and gown.

Elisa Martinez, BA, Early Childhood Education, Nashville