Seniors express excitement, frustration about College’s late announcement to allow guests at Commencement

The College announced Wednesday that it would allow graduates to invite two guests to Commencement.

by Emily Lu | 5/10/21 2:02am

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Commencement this year will take place on Memorial Field instead of on the Green.
by Cecilia Shao / The Dartmouth Staff

After reiterating in early April its plan to bar guests from attending the 2021 Commencement and investiture ceremonies on June 13, the College reversed this policy on Wednesday, announcing that it would allow each Dartmouth graduate to invite two guests. While some students have received the change with excitement, others expressed frustration with the sudden change in policy.

Luiza Odhiambo ’21 said that as a first-generation college student, graduation is something that she has been working towards her whole life and is grateful that two people will be able to watch her walk across the stage, though the announcement came later than she would have wished. 

“My family’s been talking about it for a while and we were a little bit bummed that [before the reversal] my mom wouldn’t be able to go to graduation,” Odhiambo said. “I think it’s great that she’s going to be here.” 

She added that the “timing” of the decision means that traveling to Commencement is “going to be a very difficult situation for a lot of people.”

Daniel Bring ’21, who wrote an op-ed on April 5 harshly criticizing the College’s initial decision to bar guests from Commencement and helped circulate a petition that garnered more than 400 signatures, said he is at Dartmouth “in large part due to the sacrifices from [his] parents” and is grateful that they will have the opportunity to attend. He added that allowing guests to attend should be “a basic courtesy” from the College. 

Dean of the College Kathryn Lively said that the decision to allow guests at Commencement was made “as soon as [the College] had permission” after conversations with “the experts, the governor, [and] the Town [of Hanover].” She added that Grafton County experienced high rates of transmission throughout the spring term, and that the administration did not want to promise something they could not deliver. 

“I’m really hopeful that even if students aren’t participating in the ceremony with their parents or their family members or [if] their friends aren’t able to come, that they will still feel as celebrated, and a part of the community, by the folks in the stands who were able to … take advantage of this opportunity to be here,” Lively said. 

Some parents of members of the Class of 2021 were already planning on traveling to the Upper Valley prior to the announcement of the new guest policy. Himani Ranjan, whose son is graduating this year, said that she is “elated” to be able to celebrate the milestone in person. According to Ranjan, she and her husband were planning on traveling to the Upper Valley regardless, and booked an Airbnb rental prior to the College’s change of plans. 

“We probably could have had a celebration here back home in Texas, but that would have been nothing like being a part of the live ceremony there on the same grounds that we know that [our son] walked day in and day out … [for] four years,” Ranjan said of their plans to attend Commencement. 

Nadia Koolina ’21 said that despite the change in guest policy, her family — who would have to fly in from Australia — still does not plan to partake in the in-person commencement due to international travel bans and the COVID-19 risk. However, she said that the new policy will allow her to “guiltlessly” invite friends who may live in the Northeast. 

“This provides a really unique opportunity because now I would want to invite friends that are either in Boston or New York,” Koolina said. “I don’t really know if I would have done that if it was more of a traditional graduation. I probably would have just invited as much [of] my family and my extended family as possible.”

According to Lively, while the College had always hoped to offer an in-person Commencement and possibly include friends and family, the change in policy was only feasible once vaccination conditions had improved. The earlier exclusion of out-of-state college students from receiving vaccines in New Hampshire and the pause on Johnson & Johnson vaccine distribution “messed up the timeline,” Lively said. 

“Now that vaccinations are readily available, now that our students are being vaccinated [and] now that case counts are down in this area and we’ve gotten buy-in from the state and town, that’s what made this possible,” Lively said. 

Riley Flewelling ’21 worried that the late decision from Dartmouth will create challenges for parents who may not be able to afford traveling to Hanover on such short notice. 

“I understand that Dartmouth is worried about impacting the community as well, but I just wish they maybe mirrored some of those peer institutions and made a bolder decision earlier,” Flewelling said. “I feel as if throughout all of [COVID-19] policy the administration has not valued the opinions of the students enough.”

Princeton University announced on April 9 a similar policy allowing two guests to attend its May 16 commencement ceremony, and Cornell University announced a two-guest policy on April 30 for ceremonies from May 28–30. The other Ivy League schools all have planned entirely virtual ceremonies or in-person events without guests. 

Odhiambo added that for some families, finding Upper Valley lodging and flights will prove especially challenging. 

“It’s a little too late to make this call with one month left because the people who benefit the most are the ones who have access to a lot of financial resources,” Odhiambo said. 

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