With just weeks left until graduation, everything was going according to plan for University of Montana senior Trisha Bartle. The German and creative writing double major had a regular gig writing for an online publication and a finished draft of a novel going through revisions. Her sights were set on the finish line: a walk across the stage where her degree would await her.
Two weeks after moving classes online, the University of Montana announced it would cancel the traditional commencement ceremony, scheduled for May 9, leaving seniors grappling with the loss of a major milestone.
“I’d been dreading the news,” Bartle said. “I was so looking forward to walking. A lot of people say ‘Ugh, I don’t want to walk. It’s lame.’ It’s not lame to me. It’s a lot of work to get to the end.”
Bartle’s college path was unique and challenging. After growing up in Minnesota, she moved to Missoula in 2007 and worked as a freelancer, writing web content for a number of publications.
Soon, the allure of higher education became too great, and she decided to attend the University of Montana in 2016.
“There’s only so far you can go without education,” she said. “I was already a professional writer, but I wanted to get into the creative side more and become a novelist.”
Bartle worked her way through the English program, eventually adding extra credits to pick up her second major in German. She developed a regular beat writing for an online client and finished a draft of a contemporary romance novel with the advice of English department professor Erin Saldin. In late March, her client reached out to her with bad news.
“Sorry — coronavirus,” Bartle said, paraphrasing the message. “We can’t afford independent contractors right now.”
Just a week later, Bartle faced another huge loss when commencement was canceled.
Bartle described herself as introverted, but during her years at UM, her friend group expanded rapidly. Outside of class, she and her friends would gather for weekly game nights, playing card games like spades and hearts. Bartle said their tradition has moved to the internet, with Jackbox Party Pack games.
“Seeing how much this has affected me — not being around people — I’m like, ‘Oh shit. I’m not an introvert anymore,’” Bartle said. “Suddenly, everybody was gone, and you couldn’t say goodbye.”
Bartle’s brother in Oregon and her mother in Missoula both planned to attend the ceremony. As a first-generation college student, Bartle said her mother is proud of her “in that classic mom way.” Now, Bartle isn’t sure her brother will make it if the ceremony is rescheduled.
In the email sent to students announcing the cancelation of commencement, UM President Seth Bodnar said the University is working on plans to host a ceremony honoring spring semester graduates in September or October, complete with a procession on the Oval and a walk across the stage in the Adams Center.
The University also intends to mark May 9, the date commencement was originally scheduled, with a video commemorating seniors and their four years at UM, according to the campus-wide email.
Finally, UM is developing a plan for the provost, several deans, Bodnar and other faculty to travel across Montana and surrounding regions to host smaller ceremonies with graduates in their own towns.
For some UM students, none of these replacement ceremonies will work.
Maryam Alwatani has lived in Missoula with her husband, Ali Alzarra, since 2015. Alzarra is finishing his last semester studying computer science at the University on a scholarship from his home nation, Saudi Arabia.
Alwatani, originally from Bahrain, said when Alzarra was deciding on a place to study in the U.S., few options appealed more than Missoula. The couple brought their 2-year-old daughter with them and have since had two boys.
“Missoula is a quiet city, not a lot of distractions,” Alwatani said. “It’s been a great experience living here.”
For the last five years, Alwatani said she’s watched Alzarra study intensely. They made friends with other international families living in Missoula and studying at the University. All but one have returned to their home countries.
Alwatani and Alzarra had planned to do the same after commencement. The COVID-19 pandemic has made that goal more difficult. Alwatani said they still hope to move back to Saudi Arabia permanently this summer, making the fall ceremony a non-option.
“Even if it’s going to be postponed, he still can’t attend it,” Alwatani said. “People who live here, if the crisis ends, will be able to attend a ceremony. We’re not going to be here anyway.”
It’s a frustrating situation for the couple, compounding an already trying time living in their home. With all three children now homeschooling and Alzarra working on major senior projects, Alwatani said it’s a constant struggle keeping the kids occupied.
“The hardest thing is that they don’t really get it,” she said. “The oldest kind of understands it, but the youngest keep asking, ‘Why are we stuck at home?’”
The cancellation of in-person commencement also has broad implications for those aided by UM’s TRIO Student Support Services.
Darlene Samson, the 27-year director of the federally-funded program dedicated to aiding first generation, disabled or low income students, said graduation is a bigger occasion for TRIO’s students than others.
“The buildup to getting your college degree, most particularly for first-generation students, is a huge milestone and a huge success,” Samson said. “They’re trying to be resilient, but it’s a huge disappointment.”
Samson added that potential online replacements for commencement pose problems for the students her organization serves, as many already struggle with remote learning due to unreliable internet or lack of access to computers. One of her immunocompromised students even fears leaving the house for groceries, Samson said.
Ultimately, Samson said, TRIO is working on a plan to celebrate its graduates independently.
“I hope that students will feel like their accomplishments are being recognized and that we’re happy for them,” she said.
While other Montana universities have joined UM in canceling in-person commencements, some have developed other ideas for recognition that go beyond delayed ceremonies.
Montana State University graduates will be mailed “Spring 2020 Commencement in a Box,” according to an email from university president Waded Cruzado. Boxes will contain a degree cover, tassel and balloons for graduates’ personal “balloon drop moment.”
A degree will be mailed to each student at a later date.
For Alwatani and her husband, a plan for recognition like MSU’s would be welcome, especially in their situation. “That is a really joyful idea,” Alwatani said. “At this time, we would appreciate any creative idea.”
University of Montana Registrar Joseph Hickman said the University is surveying graduates on commencement replacement options, but noted the manufacturers of UM’s degree covers and graduation attire are under shutdown orders.
Paula Short, director of communications at the University, added that more concrete plans will likely be announced around April 15, the day the survey closes. She said individual schools and colleges at UM are formulating their own plans to recognize graduates.
“Our goal is to honor and celebrate each and every UM Graduate, though we realize the logistics around in-person events are likely limited to the campus-based event and the regional gatherings,” Short said in an email. “However, we have alumni across the country and around the world! Perhaps we can work together to facilitate smaller events in other places as well.”
Hickman also said he was aware other schools around the state have plans to mail out commencement regalia when it becomes available.
Regardless of how the University proceeds, Alwatani said when they informed family back home of the cancelation, they told Alzarra to bring his graduation robe back with him so they could celebrate together.
Despite simmering disappointment and hardship, another theme emerged from the graduating seniors: gratitude toward the University’s earnest efforts to recognize them. Speaking from her Missoula home, Bartle said she knows the cancelation is just one symptom of a much bigger crisis.
“It’s easy to say, ‘Woe is me, I’m not going to walk,’” she said. “But there’s bigger things happening. It’s uplifting that the University has a plan.”