Virtual Convocation celebrated around the world

Thousands of graduating students, friends and family members tune in to ceremonies

While COVID-19 derailed plans for in-person Convocation this spring, McGill staff dedicated themselves to creating the best possible remote celebration. Judging by the response, with thousands of people tuning in from around the world to watch the broadcast of each of the 10 ceremonies on June 18 and 19, the effort was well worth it.

“The whole ceremony was beyond my expectations,” says Réginal Labonté, who graduated with a Bachelor in Civil Law and a Minor Concentration in Sociology. “The team behind Convocation did a terrific job with the video presentation on YouTube; it must have taken a lot of time and energy to come up with a final product of such quality.”

Labonté was one of over 3,100 graduating students who registered to participate in Virtual Convocation. Each ceremony lasted between 20 and 40 minutes depending on the number of graduating students in each faculty. The live chat drew over 1,600 comments of love and encouragement from around the world.

“Most, if not all, cherished traditional moments in a ‘normal’ Convocation ceremony were part of the virtual ceremony such as the bagpipes, the McGill anthem and speeches from the Chancellor and the Principal,” says Labonté, who also calls messages from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Quebec Premier François Legault “a good surprise.”

Alternative event

Like so many other graduating students at McGill and around the world, Hawa Maiga was upset when she found out that there would be no in-person Convocation this spring.

“At first, I was disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to celebrate with friends and family on campus, but I completely understood why it was impossible to host an in-person convocation ceremony,” says Maiga, who earned a BA Joint Honours, Political Science and International Development Studies with a Minor in Classical Studies. “Once they announced that there would be an alternative virtual ceremony, I was very relieved that the school was planning to prepare something that would allow graduates to celebrate the end of our degrees.”

The pre-recorded ceremonies had the added bonus of being able to be viewed multiple times – making it possible to have more than one celebration. “I actually had two ceremonies: one at home with family, and another with friends over a video call,” Maiga says. “It was a great way to take the time to celebrate and recognize what we achieved.”

Like Maiga, Labonté was disappointed when he heard about the in-person ceremonies being shelved. But he was heartened when Principal Suzanne Fortier announced that the Class of 2020 also had the option of participating in in-person Convocation next year. “When I heard the virtual ceremony was meant to be a complement to an in-person ceremony next year, it was much easier to see its positive sides.”

Photo of Hawa Maiga and Réginal Labonté

Get-it-done spirit

In many ways, Virtual Convocation was a fitting end to a turbulent winter semester as it showcased the resilience, pluck and get-it-done attitude of McGill students, staff and faculty, with courses shifting to remote delivery during the final weeks of the term.

“All in all, remote classes worked well. At first, the sudden adaptation we all had to go through was a huge challenge, especially for someone like me who is more used to studying at libraries on and off campus or coffee shops rather than at home,” says Labonté. “My professors, the Faculty of Law and the Sociology Department were up to the challenge and very understanding throughout the crisis and beyond.”

Earlier this year, Gaurav Karna was looking forward to his parents flying in from his hometown of Nassau, in the Bahamas, to watch him walk across the stage and receive his Bachelor of Arts and Science in Cognitive Science with a minor in Computer Science.

Instead, Karna, who was in Montreal, hooked up via video call with his parents on June 19 to watch the virtual ceremony together.

The COVID-19 shutdown caught him and many of his classmates by surprise, Karna says. “Some of us had our last undergraduate class, went to our last University social event, or met up with friend of ours for the last time – while not even knowing it.”

Multinational student body

Karna was one of more than 2,600 international students graduating this spring, or almost one-third of the Class of 2020. The class represents 124 countries, from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe, including some of the largest (Russia and China), as well as some of the smallest (Saint Lucia and Luxembourg). So it’s no surprise that thousands of people from all around the world tuned in to celebrate.

This diversity is one of the University’s strengths. In the recently-released QS World University Rankings, McGill had the highest international student ratio among Canadian peer universities.

Statistics provided by McGill’s International Student Services (ISS) show that there were 12,798 international students from 154 countries enrolled at the University for the 2019-2020 academic year.

“International students come to McGill with diverse backgrounds and life experience,” says Pauline L’Ecuyer, Director, International Student Services. “Some are citizens of the world already with dual citizenships, and have lived in multiple countries before they arrive in Montreal. Others applied for their first passport when they received an offer of admission from McGill. Whatever their story is, we help them transition to McGill, develop intercultural competences and be ready for the next chapter of their life.”

“We continue to help those international students who want to stay in Canada and benefit from the generous Canadian program offering a three-year post-graduation work permit to international students,” says L’Ecuyer, who notes the ISS team is already busy preparing remote orientation and services to the new cohort of international students coming this Fall.

Launch of the Rainbow

But the diversity of the Class of 2020 is not just a question of citizenship.

On May 20, Launch the Rainbow brought together students, staff, faculty and administration to celebrate graduating 2SLGBTQIA+ students. Once again, technology saved the day, allowing the event, now in its third year, to be held virtually.

“We felt it was so important to keep the Launch of the Rainbow going, to keep creating these community-building spaces, to break the isolation, especially now in times of COVID-19, where people (and especially 2SLGBTQIA+ students) experience isolation, stress and anxiety,” says Meryem Benslimane, Equity Education Advisor, Office of the Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic). “We wanted to honor our 2SLGBTQIA+ graduating students, who were not able to celebrate finishing their degrees at Convocation in person this year, by at least providing this safe space online and be able to bring McGill’s community together, staff, students, faculty and alumni.

“Principal Fortier and Angela Campbell [Associate Provost (Equity and Academic Policies)] have both been really supportive from the start of this initiative, and made sure to be able to attend and say a few words to the students,” says Benslimane. “I think it brought a lot of joy to the students, to see that we care and want to keep supporting our 2SLGBTQIA+ students.”

First Peoples’ House graduation ceremony

Next up, First Peoples’ House hosted an online celebration of graduating Indigenous students on June 3. Held via Zoom, the event drew students, friends and family from the United States and across Canada.

“Every time an Indigenous person advances educationally, we all advance educationally,” said Ben Geboe, Coordinator, Indigenous Access McGill, and MC of the event, in his opening remarks. “It is a tremendous contribution you have given to yourselves and to your communities. Even if we don’t come together again, this is a very important thing.”

“The Indigenous student community is really the backbone and driver of positive change at McGill,” said Tomas Jirousek, Indigenous Graduate Speaker in his address. Jirousek was the recipient of the inaugural Moral Courage in Reconciliation Award for his leadership in the efforts to change the name of the men’s varsity teams at McGill. “While there aren’t that many of us, in no way does that diminish the impact that we’ve had as a graduating class.”

“Congratulations to my fellow graduates, this is an incredible milestone,” said Jirousek, who earned a BA Honours in Political Science and was named a valedictorian for the Faculty of Arts. “I know that each of us has the power and opportunity to change the world, whether that is through activism or community engagement or however you choose to spend your lives. It’s honestly been such an honour to get to know all of you and I will truly miss you.”

Lifelong friendships that span the globe

“My fondest memories are a result of the diverse people I connected with on campus,” says Karna. “Even within my group of friends, there are six continents and nearly 20 countries represented. All of the late nights at the library, Thanksgiving meals, reading week trips, and faculty events have culminated in lifelong bonds that I will always treasure.”

In the fall, Karan will move to Vancouver to start his full-time job as a software engineer at one of the largest technology companies in the world. “I’m super excited to be starting the next phase of my career, and thankful for all the support I’ve received from my family, friends and the University,” he says.

“I’m really happy that I chose to come to McGill four years ago, and cannot imagine having made a better choice,” says Karna. “The road to the end of undergraduate was quite literally filled with almost every emotion under the sun and was anything but easy, but I’m grateful for the experience I’ve had and for the people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. So, congratulations to everyone in the Class of 2020 (we deserve it!), which will probably go down in history for having graduated in one of the most eventful years in modern history.”

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