May 13, 2020

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The coronavirus pandemic has sidelined universities’ and high schools’ plans for traditional graduations, but students are still celebrating the accomplishment. It just looks a little different this year.

Here’s how student journalists around the country are covering the end of an unconventional school year. (And to the class of 2020 members reading this: Congratulations!)

Visual storytelling

Without opportunities for photos at commencement ceremonies and end-of-year celebrations, student journalists took creative approaches to mark the end of the year through visuals.

The Purdue Exponent captured volunteers packing “commencement boxes,” which included diploma holders, honor cords, medals and memorabilia. James Madison University drove a caravan through Harrisonburg, Virginia, to celebrate its graduates, The Breeze reported.

At the University of Georgia, the Red and Black asked students to submit photos of their decorated graduation caps. The Sunflower at Wichita State University took front porch portraits of graduating seniors, which became the cover of its graduation issue.


First-generation students

Canceled graduation ceremonies hold even more significance when a family is celebrating its first graduates.

“If graduation was outright canceled, I would be devastated,” University of Oklahoma senior Liz Williams told the OU Daily. The university announced a virtual commencement in May and postponed its in-person ceremony to August.

“My parents have given me everything and they deserve to see me graduate in person.”

The Daily Texan and the Columbia Spectator also reported on what’s lost without an in-person commencement.

“It’s very symbolic for a lot of first-generation low-income students to have their parents there, especially for a lot of us [who] have parents who are immigrants and quite literally gave up everything to come to this country,” Patricia Granda-Malaver told the Columbia Spectator.


Virtual, unconventional and future graduations

Many schools have announced online ceremonies to replace traditional commencements, but not all students are satisfied with those plans. More than 3,000 Northwestern University seniors signed a petition urging the university to hold an in-person graduation at a later date, The Daily Northwestern reports. (The university later announced that it planned an in-person ceremony for the class of 2020 in June 2021.)

And around the country, students are getting creative with their own virtual replacements. A Brigham Young University communications professor organized a virtual graduation on Club Penguin, The Daily Universe reported. Murray State University plans to host an online ceremony on Minecraft with a block-for-block replica of a campus arena.

And an Indiana University graduating senior spent a week designing a custom graduation ceremony on Animal Crossing.

“It was a surprise to see how much work he actually put into it,” senior Jackson Hawk told The Indiana Daily Student. “There were virtual caps and gowns, we did a walk through a garden and sat down at folding chairs.”


Final issues

The Signpost at Weber State University printed all the names of the class of 2020 in its end-of-year issue, which also covered the coronavirus’ impact on the university community. The Michigan Daily’s graduation issue looked back at the past four years in university news, arts, sports and more.

The Emory Wheel’s 160-page (!) graduation magazine featured reflections from departing seniors plus yearbook-style congratulation messages from families.


How has your student publication covered graduation during the pandemic, or how do you plan to? Email me and let me know.

Submit tools you love

I want to hear what you use to make your journalism better, whether it’s a whiteboard organization system, your favorite app or a type of reporter’s notebook you can’t live without. What’s your favorite (digital or non-digital) tool that other student journalists should know about? Email me and I might feature it in a future issue.

One story worth reading

How do you launch a journalism career during a pandemic? Set realistic expectations, pick up new skills and be empathetic, writes Theodore Kim, director of newsroom fellowships and internships at The New York Times, for Poynter. “The job market may have changed,” he writes. “But whether we’re in a pandemic or not, how we treat people matters.”

Opportunities and trainings

  • Webinars:
    • Poynter: Job hunting during a pandemic (video posted)
    • IRE: How to best prepare for summer and beyond with or without an internship, Investigating higher ed amid COVID-19 (videos posted)
    • SPJ: College media revenue reversal: How will you survive after the shutdown? (video posted)
  • Submit a podcast to The New York Times’ student contest by May 19.
  • The Student Press Law Center’s Summer Media Law & Policy Institute is a three-week online course taught by media law experts around the country. Apply by May 20.
  • Apply for the Student Press Law Center’s press freedom awards for high school and college journalists by May 22.
  • The Society of Professional Journalists seeks interns to cover the Excellence in Journalism conference in Washington, D.C., this fall. Apply by May 24.
  • The Native American Journalism Fellowship for college students includes a reporting immersion at the National Native Media Conference, mentorship and trainings. Apply by May 31.
  • BigPicture is giving two $2,500 grants to photographers between the ages of 18 and 25. Apply here by May 31.
  • College students and recent graduates, apply for NPR’s Next Generation Radio Project, a weeklong audio journalism training program at locations around the country.

💌 Last week’s newsletter: Your summer internship got canceled. What can you do now?

📣 I want to hear from you. What would you like to see in the newsletter? Have a cool project to share? Email

Taylor Blatchford is a journalist at The Seattle Times who independently writes The Lead, a newsletter for student journalists. She can be reached at or on Twitter @blatchfordtr.

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Taylor Blatchford is a journalist at The Seattle Times who independently writes The Lead, a newsletter for student journalists. She can be reached at…
Taylor Blatchford

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