“It just isn’t the same”: graduates lament cancellation of in-person June 2020 convocation

Students reflect on importance of honouring personal achievements, celebrating with family

“It just isn’t the same”: graduates lament cancellation of in-person June 2020 convocation

Lauren Goncalves and Charlotte Martin have been friends since middle school. They went to high school together in Toronto’s west end, and they were both the only students from their school to enrol in U of T’s life sciences program.

During their first week of classes, on September 14, 2015, a student sitting next to Martin and Goncalves took their photo in Convocation Hall, remarking that the three might reunite during convocation in the same space several years later. 

COURTESY OF LAUREN GONCALVES AND CHARLOTTE MARTIN

But a viral outbreak had other plans for the class of 2020.  

On March 25, the University of Toronto decided to cancel the in-person June convocation for students graduating after this semester due to COVID-19. U of T’s class of 2020 graduated over a virtual ceremony on June 2, making them the first class in recent memory to not have the opportunity to walk across the stage at Convocation Hall.

The announcement that the university was cancelling the in-person ceremony was met with immediate backlash from students who were furious that U of T would not choose to postpone it instead.

In an email to The Varsity, Arts and Science Students’ Union President Ikran Jama wrote, “We hoped that the University would take the time to read some of these stories to understand the utter sadness, shock, and defeat associated with their decision — to place a great degree of raw emotion behind their brief statement of understanding how disappointed students must be feeling.”

Convocation marks a significant milestone for those who are first-generation students, who have had to juggle parenting and their studies, or who have made financial and personal sacrifices. To understand their perspectives, The Varsity interviewed these students to find out what convocation means to them. 

Megan Whitehead-Douglas is a Master’s of Education student at the Ontario Institute of Education Studies (OISE). Convocation was particularly important to her because she has a seven-year-old son and wanted him to see the culmination of her academic accomplishments. 

“For the last four years I’ve been always doing school, and it was important to me that he come to convocation and see the hard work that went into it.”

Whitehead-Douglas said that she understands the need to cancel in-person convocation, but wishes that the university could have given alternate plans for a celebration at the time of the original announcement.

Martin shared these sentiments, saying that she had looked forward to following in her mom’s footsteps, who completed her PhD at U of T. “It took her eight years, and she had three kids and was working full time while she was doing it,” said Martin. “We were lucky enough to be able to go to her convocation in 2008.”

While the Faculty of Arts & Science (FAS) and UTM had told its students that it was planning its own celebration, not all faculties and departments have made similar announcements, and Whitehead-Douglas hopes that this can be improved.

On March 26, the FAS announced that it would eventually host an in-person ceremony in lieu of convocation. FAS Dean Melanie Woodin wrote to students that the date had not been decided yet and that it “may not look like the traditional U of T Convocation.” However, she promised that it would be “a special occasion.”

On April 3, U of T President Meric Gertler sent a university-wide email announcing that U of T would be holding a virtual convocation.

In response to this news, Jama wrote, “While a virtual convocation is in the works and we are sure that every student will try to make the most of it, it just isn’t the same as crossing the stage.”

Another OISE master’s student, Melanie Holmes, was also looking forward to sharing her accomplishment with her son. Holmes enrolled in a two-year program in 2016 as a part-time student while working full-time and supporting her family.

“Convocation for me signifies the end of an academic marathon, the achievement of a goal that at 25 I was told was impossible,” Holmes wrote in an email to The Varsity

This was a common refrain for all interviewed students for whom the ceremony would have been the manifestation of years of hard work. For some, like Evelyn Asce, convocation would not only have been a marker of their success, but of the sacrifices made by their families. 

Asce is the daughter of refugees from El Salvador and the first in her family to go to graduate school. This month she is finishing her degree as a master’s student in public health and was looking forward to convocation as a chance for her parents to celebrate her achievements, which would not have been possible without their support.

“My graduation is a ceremony to remember everything that we’ve gone through and the accomplishments that I’ve had throughout my life.”

While Asce understands why convocation had to be cancelled, she questioned why the university could not have postponed it, and further critiqued U of T’s choice to put out a general statement rather than contact graduating students.

Like Asce, fourth-year political science student Sara Imran was critical of the university’s decision to cancel in-person convocation, as opposed to postponing it. Being the first girl in her family to not only attend a four-year university, but to attend one outside of Pakistan, the ceremony would have meant a lot to her and her parents. As such, she is unhappy with how the university has handled the matter.

“[U of T has] an office dedicated to simply organizing convocation,” she said, referring to the Office of Convocation. “So there’s a bunch of people whose job it literally is to just organize convocation.”

Imran pointed to other Canadian universities that have committed to postponing convocation, and wonders why U of T is unable to do the same. Ryerson University has postponed its convocation to Fall 2020 and McGill University has postponed to Spring 2021. 

Fourth-year political science and international relations student Amanda Burns echoed Imran’s sentiments, saying, “I just feel like a complete cancellation was hasty, was an overreaction, was a complete oversight of their options.” 

“It’s like a bad breakup where they’re just sending our stuff in the mail and we’re never going to see them.”

Like many of the other students, Burns had been looking forward to convocation as not only a chance to celebrate her accomplishments, but those of her parents as well. Burns spoke about wanting to see her parents in the crowd as she walked across the stage — a moment which would have meant a lot to her since her parents are divorced, and convocation would have been one of the few times when her whole family would be together. 

“I know every student here has had their own personal struggles that they’ve had to go through outside of school for the past four years, and I’m no exception to that,” said Burns. “So the fact that we are still able to push through all those struggles, and still get degrees at the same time — I just think it would have been a great moment to walk across that stage with our heads held high, for our friends and family to see.”

“We should all come together and force the administration to give us a convocation. I don’t care when it happens, but I think that this needs to happen.”

Disclosure: Josie Kao previously served as The Varsity’s Volume 140 Editor-in-Chief and Volume 139 News Editor, and Srivindhya Kolluru previously served as The Varsity’s Volume 140 Business Editor and Volume 139 Science Editor.

Op-ed: In the era of social media, there is no room for complicity in anti-Black racism

Why staying on the sidelines is not an option

Op-ed: In the era of social media, there is no room for complicity in anti-Black racism

Almost three weeks have slowly and painfully come and gone since May 25. Protesters continue to fill cities across the globe in collective grief at the institutionalized discrimination and violence that resulted in the murder of George Floyd. His death represents only one of the latest in a long line of heavily publicized acts of violence against Black people across North America.

This was not an isolated or unintentional incident — in fact, it represents a cog in the larger machine of systemic marginalization and oppression based on unjustifiable prejudice. Such marginalization and oppression have become part of the fabric of national reality, both in Canada and the United States.

Though we may not believe that we are part of the problem, we are all complicit in its perpetuation. This lies in the understanding that awareness of prejudice, on its own, is not enough. Being anti-racist requires action.   

The murders of Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor in the past months — as well as the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet — have culminated in a slew of responses on social media. People rushed to mourn the lives of those lost at the hands of white supremacy and enablement. They also prepared themselves for a campaign to tackle and dismantle the prejudice that perpetuates and normalizes such crimes.

But with the saying that history repeats itself, will campaigns like this — no matter how jarring and transformative — continue to die down and re-emerge? In order for us to reach the summit of this struggle against racialized violence, we need to realize the impact of collective contribution and dedication. 

In the era of social media, recorded evidence and testimonies about anti-Black racism and police brutality have been amplified: both in prevalence and recognition. The new-found accessibility of this information serves to shatter a fragile illusion of reality we have built around ourselves, that racism — especially in Canada — has somehow been solved. 

If anything, the pulling back of this veil for many people has shown that acts of violence against Black communities do not represent glitches in the system. They are rather a direct result of the current structures of policing and law enforcement, and the agenda of mass incarceration that prevails in Canada and the United States.

To place the blame of such senseless crimes on anything other than institutionalized violence would disrespect the reported and unreported Black and Indigenous bodies lost or injured because of it.  

Social media is key for disseminating grassroots and on-the-ground information. We can easily familiarize ourselves with the lived experiences of people across the globe and can access information about current injustices and the movements of struggle against them — even when major media outlets fail to draw attention to them. This ease of access then leaves us responsible for our own awareness of and exposure to the stark reality that racialized people live within and are exposed to.

Our ability to understand the injustice that underpins our national existence through knowledge accessible to us through social media does not come without responsibility. This ease of access to reality forces us to realize that awareness and education on its own is only the first step in a long, winding road toward dismantling systemic injustice. Remaining silent through such pivotal moments should no longer be an option, but what happens when we realize that awareness on its own is not enough? 

To bring this topic closer to home, let us reflect on an exchange that took place at Massey College in September of 2017. Senior Fellow Michael Marrus approached a Black junior fellow and told them, “You know this is your master, eh? Do you feel the lash?” in reference to Principal of Massey College Hugh Segal, whose title at the time was “Master.” 

For some, such an occurrence seems out of place and frankly disruptive to the normal codes of human conduct and interaction. But a closer observation of the context of such interactions in Toronto, and in a postsecondary institute such as the University of Toronto, only goes to show that this harmful conduct remains a normalized part of social interactions — more than we would like to admit. 

This normalization only further proves the impact of what has become a culture of casual racism that gets slipped into mundane experiences and interactions. It is the voice of protest, both physical and digital, in these interactions that fuel the fires of awareness and the constant fight against injustice. This same voice of protest is what carried the fight for justice forward when Floyd was tragically murdered.

Even in the midst of this current push for retribution, justice, and autonomy, it may feel easy to turn a blind eye once there is something new to watch. I urge you to keep this movement visible, to keep it in your consciousness, and to keep this struggle for justice an inherent part of our humanity and humility.

Yasmeen Atassi is a fourth-year history and human biology student at St. Michael’s College. She is currently the opinions editor for The Mike and the former vice-president social advancement of the Muslim Students’ Association.