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Virtual convocation breaks new ground for Class of 2020

Spring convocation – the highlight of the academic year – typically runs like a well-oiled machine at Niagara College. But 2020 was anything but typical.

With its campuses closed due to COVID-19, and restrictions on gathering in place, College staff and administrators decided to do what was once unthinkable – host spring convocation ceremonies without the graduates physically present. And to do it, they could not simply rev up the convocation machine. They had to reinvent the wheel.

It was uncharted territory. There were no templates to follow and noone to turn to for guidance.  

There was only outside-the-box thinking, and a united determination to celebrate the Class of 2020’s much-anticipated milestone – one that they faced unprecedented obstacles to achieve – in a meaningful and timely way before they embarked upon the next chapter of their lives.

After brainstorming sessions, collaborations between several departments, and countless hours of planning and working out logistics, the College’s convocation planning committee, led by President’s Office coordinator Carly Root, Broadcasting – Radio, Television and Film program coordinator Dutch VandenBerg, and Marketing/ Digital Media coordinator Luke Gillett, in consultation with Enrolment Services, rolled out a plan for NC’s first-ever Virtual Convocation ceremonies that was unlike any other.

In the face of COVID-19, the plan would celebrate the graduating class of students the same way they completed their studies – remotely, but #NCTogether.

Three people sitting in a living room watching the Convocation livestream”
A family gathers around the television set to view their son’s virtual ceremony.

From June 15-19, 5,000 graduates were celebrated through 10 interactive ceremonies broadcast live from the Welland Campus.

The virtual ceremonies combined tradition with modern broadcasting and social media tools to create a truly interactive virtual experience, which connected graduates with one another, their families and College staff.

Each ceremony was broadcast live in real time– led by the College president and vice president and livestreamed into the homes of graduates and viewers.

Each graduate’s name was read aloud, one by one, and could be viewed printed on screen.

The graduates were not merely viewers to their ceremony, they were active participants. As they watched the livestream formal event live in real time, they also joined Zoom parties – prearranged for each program area— giving them a chance to connect with their faculty and classmates. They also had an opportunity to make a virtual appearance onscreen during the ceremony broadcast as clips of graduates cheering and waving from their Zoom parties were incorporated into the livestream.

Virtual convocation tapped into the power of social media, incorporating posts and tweets using the hashtag #NCGrad2020 into the ceremonies themselves. Graduates were able to connect with their classmates, faculty and staff and receive well wishes from their family social media comments incorporated into the ceremony.

The College not only hosted a memorable, interactive series of ceremonies for its new graduates but drew tens of thousands of views from across Niagara, Canada and around the world.

Virtual convocation also incorporated several engaging pre-recorded videos – many offered well wishes from faculty and administrators who never had a chance to see the graduates in-person since their on-campus classes came to an abrupt end without warning in mid-March. Others captured the essence of this historic moment for the graduates 

“Virtual Convocation is the perfect example of what sets NC apart,” noted NC president Sean Kennedy. “It showcased what true teamwork, trailblazing, and passionate dedication are all about.”

Lights, camera, convocation!

President Sean Kennedy and VP Academic Steve Hudson join a group of graduates in their Zoom party.

A video custom-created for the Class of 2020, You’ve always been a Knight, set the tone for the event, shining the spotlight on what it means to be a Knight, the unique challenges faced by those graduating during the global pandemic, and the vital place they have in history.

An alumni video was also created, including personal messages from then president of RW&CO Lora Tisi (Class of 1979), CEO and co-founder of Red Planet Hotels Tim Hansing (Class of 1987), Niagara EMS chief Kevin Smith (Class of 1992), TV host and reporter Amy Audibert (Class of 2012) who also voiced the opening video for the ceremony.

Numerous videos from faculty, staff and administrators were collected for the broadcast, which included messages of well-wishes and even advice for the graduates, who they hadn’t seen in person since mid-March.

Videos from the College’s Board of Governors chair John Scott and College Student Administrative Council president Tom Price were also played during the ceremonies.

Video well wishes also came from beyond – from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, including the Niagara Regional chair, Minister of Colleges and Universities Ross Romano, and Niagara regional chair Jim Bradley.

And the convocation speaker – it couldn’t be just any speaker. While the College would typically select industry specific professionals, community leader or even alumni to address grads from related schools of study for each ceremony, organizers knew the status quo would not suit the Class of 2020 whose experience was anything but. This class of graduates, who completed their studies remotely and face changed world upon graduation unlike anything any class of students had experienced before them.

Much consideration was given to selecting a highly inspirational speaker who whose message would resonate with the graduates, who could offer helpful advice to those entering the next phase of their lives at a time that was truly like no other.

The College found that speaker in six-time Olympic medalist and mental health advocate Clara Hughes, whose powerful, inspirational message transcended the challenge of current times.

The livestream broadcast itself was organized and executed by VandenBerg and Gillett, with the help of a group of 10 Broadcasting students who gained experience applying their skills behind the scenes during the ceremonies.

Each ceremony included an Indigenous welcome from traditional knowledge keeper Karl Dockstader; music from piper Kelley Buckley; and a special video of the national anthem sung by College faculty Barbara Mantini, Giacomo Folinazzo and Paul Wintemute. Names were read by faculty members Franco Bieri and Carolyn Ambrose-Miller.

Piper Kelley Buckley continued the musical tradition of bagpipes kicking off the ceremony.

A team of faculty and students from the Broadcasting – Radio, Television and Film program worked behind the scenes at the Welland Campus to produce each ceremony ‘show’ and live stream from the studios at the Welland Campus to graduates and viewers from across Canada and around the world.

Virtual ceremonies, real success

A screenshot of Clara Hughes delivering her convocation address during NC's Virtual Convocation ceremonies in June.  Hughes is pictured in her home speaking to the grads.
Clara Hughes delivers her convocation address to the Class of spring 2020 graduates.

For organizers, planning the College’s first-ever virtual convocation ceremonies was a Field of Dreams-like scenario. They built an entirely new template for celebrating convocation: would people attend?

Yes they would – in droves, and from around the world.

The College’s Virtual Spring Convocation ceremonies gained more than 86,000 views from over 80 countries via Facebook Live and NC’s streaming service on Virtual Convocation website. Via Facebook alone, the ceremony reached 657,300 accounts with 4,888 points of engagement. Combined social media analytics revealed 56,879 points of engagements and 2.18 million social impressions.

But the event’s success was about more than numbers. It was in each graduate’s smile, and through memories made and shared.  

Virtual Spring Convocation set a new template for the College’s convocation ceremonies during the pandemic which was followed in October for Fall Convocation as well, and introduced interactive elements to the celebrations that may possibly be incorporated into future ceremonies for years to come.

Some comments from social media

Cheryl Jenson comments, "These convocation ceremonies are truly inspiring. Niagara College held all convocations virtually. Wonderful."
Kathy Owen comments, "Niagara College Canada has done a wonderful job of making this year's convocation memorable and special for the graduates and their families. Thank you so much for what you have done for your graduates."
April Edworthy comments: "Congratulations Graduates! And congratulations to NC faculty and staff for an excellent virtual ceremony. A job well done ensuring students and families enjoyed the experience. Much gratitude to you all!"
Pam Moore Voth comments "Very cool. I think this is fancier than traditional grad ... well done!"
Nirmal Kaur comments "Thank you so much Niagara College for live excellent convocation ceremony as well as your efforts."

Broadcasting students help make history with NC’s first Virtual Convocation