Graduation mortarboards

Coping with the Loss of In-person Spring Commencement Ceremony

By Dr. Bai-Yin Chen

As we follow the social distancing (I prefer “physical distancing while socially connected”) guideline, this recommendation also brings to our graduates the loss of the June in-person Spring Commencement ceremony. In Chancellor Gary S. May’s message to the campus community on April 8, 2020 he announced that the Spring Commencement will be moved to a virtual celebration, a decision made to protect you, your family, and the community’s health and safety. The cancellation of the traditional Commencement ceremony may be felt as a loss by our graduates. The campus all together grieves the loss of this significant annual event that celebrates their achievements.

While people grieve differently, some common experiences include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and/or acceptance (Kubler-Ross, 1969). These may not necessarily be experienced linearly. Associated emotions range from shock, disbelief, frustration, anxiety, helplessness, sadness, or peacefulness.

There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Most people eventually are able to come to an acceptance of their loss.

One may have difficulty taking in the loss and cope by denying the loss. Denial may be functional to some extent as it can help us find space and time to be ready to face the loss. You may find yourself (or your friends) need to talk about your (or their) reactions to the cancellation/postponement of the ceremony over and over again as you try to find its meaning. Or, you may still be avoiding the topic! For some, if the feeling of anger is not a culturally or socially accepted emotion, these feelings can be more challenging to work through.

While this loss of the graduation ceremony may be similar in some ways to other losses, it has its unique layers to our international students. They celebrate not only their academic accomplishments but also the tremendous personal growth developed while studying and living in a different country and culture. Among the international students at UC Davis, more than 50% of them are Chinese students. Culturally, obtaining a degree abroad often transcends beyond the students’ individual accomplishments and extends to their families and ancestors. The values of “光耀門楣” or “光宗耀祖” (Bring honor to the family and ancestor) are common in some Asian cultures. In addition, the graduation ceremony provides an opportunity for graduates to bring glory to their families and for their families to express their pride in the graduates’ achievements. The whole family earns “bragging rights” upon graduation. The loss of the opportunity to live the traditional graduation experience in the company of family may be particularly disappointing to some.

What can graduates do to grieve and cope with the loss of the in-person Spring Commencement ceremony in June?

  • Name and understand your reactions (feelings, thoughts, and behaviors): What was your first reaction when you heard the ceremony in June has been postponed? What about this loss is most difficult for you?
  • Reach out for support: Talking to friends or other graduating students can help you feel not alone and feel that your experiences are validated and normalized (similar to 同病相憐 in Chinese).
  • Recognize your academic accomplishments: The loss of in-person Commencement ceremony does not take away or lessen your academic accomplishments. Not equating the loss of the ceremony to your academic achievement will help you continue to hold what you still have, such as your degree achievement, your growth, friendships made, your UC Davis experience, etc.
  • Explore alternative ways to celebrate: Yes, I hear you—“It’s not the same.” And, allow yourself to explore the ‘less than ideal’ celebration of your academic achievement. If you find yourself trapped in the all-or-none approach to the situation, I invite you to look for something in between the all and the none. Chancellor May mentioned the plan to host a virtual Commencement celebration in his message. I encourage you to attend the virtual celebration and share Chancellor May’s plan with your family abroad. In addition, you can still dress up and take pictures around campus. During your photoshoot tour you can use your favorite social media app to live share at various locations, like the infamous Eggheads or by the residence hall you stayed during your freshman year, etc. as long as you follow the guidelines under this COVID-19 pandemic. Use your creativity!
  • Focus on what you can control at the present moment: By the time you read this article, the deadline to fill out the survey for feedback on alternatives to celebrate your graduation is passed. Hopefully, you have filled out the survey. Before graduation, for example, you can focus on your spring classes. Self-care is another area you can focus on during this time. Shifting your attention to the present moment may help you regain a sense of control.
  • Look at the bigger picture: When you zoom in on the loss of the in-person Spring Commencement, you may lose sight of other positive things in your life. As you grieve the loss, try to step back/zoom out so that you can enjoy other positives going on in your life and see what you have gained during your Aggie journey at UC Davis.

Grief is a natural human response to loss. However, if you notice your academic or other daily functioning levels have been negatively impacted (some of the warning signs include, but not limited to, difficulty concentrating, change in appetite, sleep disturbances, missing homework assignments, or increased tension and conflicts in relationships) it’s okay to seek support. Student Health and Counseling Services is here to support you. You can call (530) 752-0871 to schedule a confidential counseling appointment. You can also schedule an appointment online by logging in to your Health-E-Message at

Remember, you are not alone.

Psychologist Dr. Bai-Yin Chen is Group Program Coordinator, Coordinator of Counseling Services for Graduate Students for UC Davis Student Health and Counseling Services. She is fluent in Mandarin, Taiwanese, and English. 

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