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Rice will have in-person May commencement ceremonies, featuring journalist Nicholas Kristof

Rice hosted its first virtual commencement ceremony last spring for the class of 2020. Photo courtesy Brandon Martin

By Bonnie Zhao     3/9/21 10:54pm

Rice University administration announced on Friday evening that it will host in-person commencement ceremonies for both the class of 2021 and 2020 graduates on May 14 and 15, while families and guests will attend only virtually.

The 108th Commencement Ceremony for Class of 2021 Undergraduates will be held the evening of May 14, the 108th Commencement Ceremony for Class of 2021 Advanced Degrees and Doctoral Students will be held the morning of May 15, the 107th Commencement Ceremony for Class of 2020 Undergraduate, Advanced Degrees and Doctoral Students will be held the evening of May 15 and the Combined 107th and 108th Commencement Ceremony for Class of 2020 and 2021 MBA Degree Recipients from the Jones Graduate School of Business will be held the morning of Friday, May 14, according to commencement.rice.edu.

President David Leebron said that Nicholas Kristof, the commencement speaker selected for the 2020 ceremony, is planning to come on campus and speak in person on Saturday, May 15, and the speech will be livestreamed. Kristof is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, a New York Times columnist, CNN contributor and author who has brought attention to global human rights issues through his writing for over 30 years.

“We won’t have the all-university ceremony that we usually do where the degrees are formally conferred,” Leebron wrote in an email. “The students will be seated approximately 6 feet apart from each other.  Each event still needs to be worked out in detail, and more information will be available in the weeks ahead … We want every student to have the best experience possible, and they are welcome to return to the commencement ceremony when it is possible for them,” Leebron said.

In response to the newly-announced commencement plans, Rice parent Sriram Sundaramoorthy posted a petition on change.org to allow parents to attend, which has since circulated in the Rice parents Facebook group.

The petition, signed by more than 150 people at the time of publication, said that parental presence at commencement ceremonies is important to both students and parents. According to the petition, health protocols for attendees and a limit for guests per student, as well as the natural increase of the number of vaccinated parents, would make parents safely attending in-person ceremonies possible.

“Like we have trusted Rice all these years, I hope Rice would trust us to create rules and regulations for this event, and to follow protocols to ensure everyone’s safety and to make this a successful and memorable event,” Sundaramoorthy wrote.

According to Leebron, the administration understands the parents’ disappointment, but the announced commencement plans are the current best solution under the circumstances.

“[Some] have suggested we use the football stadium, but the stadium will be used during that time as a vaccine [clinic] for our city,” Leebron wrote in an email. “Many students preferred the traditional location and the opportunity to exit through the Sallyport. With proper social distancing, we could safely accommodate only the students in the Academic Quad, but not parents and families. We can test our students and make sure other protocols are followed, which should help make sure the event does not lead to the spread of the disease … If the situation regarding the risk posed by COVID-19 transmission significantly changes in the next month or so, we may adjust our policies.”

Sundaramoorthy said that the petition will continue to be open for more signatures, and he will periodically reach out to Rice administration in the months to come.

“Parents are extremely appreciative of all that Rice has done so far and are very hopeful that they will be allowed to attend in person,” Sundaramoorthy said.

Robert Chen, an off-campus Jones College senior, said that the news about in-person graduation was a pleasant surprise for many seniors.

“None of my friends expected it,” Chen said. “It really brings us hope after a hard year. This will be the first time I’ll be on campus other than for COVID testing since March 2020. I’m excited to meet and celebrate with my fellow classmates before we go on our individual paths.”

Chen said that he believes the administration’s decision to have a virtual ceremony for families is a good call as the most important thing for everyone right now is safety. 

According to Zach Hutchins (Brown College ’20), a Houston resident, he plans to attend the commencement ceremony for his class.

“I think it’s great that Rice will be hosting a[n in-person] commencement ceremony, and I plan to attend,” Hutchins said. “However, I am only going to attend since I still live in Houston — I probably wouldn’t fly in from far away to attend.”

Brandon Chow (Will Rice College ‘20) said that he is currently taking a gap year before medical school in his hometown, Frisco, Texas, and plans on attending his commencement ceremony.

“I’m very excited to have an actual in-person graduation,” Chow said. “I felt my Rice experience was incomplete without walking out of the Sallyport for graduation last spring. While I appreciate the efforts made by Rice to hold a virtual ceremony [last year], I found it unsettling to not have the traditional in-person graduation that every student looks forward to as an undergraduate.”

According to Chow, he thinks it’s understandable that Rice is not allowing family or friends to attend the commencement ceremonies in-person due to the pandemic. 

“But I can’t wait to put my cap and gown to use and celebrate alongside my fellow classmates,” Chow said.

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