‘Building the plane as we fly it’

App State determined to turn tassel on pandemic with in-person commencement

Caps, gowns, stoles and honor cords are all part of the time-honored ceremony of commencement. Graduates throwing their caps into a sea of peers, family celebrations and lots of champagne, too. 

COVID-19 adds a layer of complication, however, as schools scramble to make the “right” call for safe, special celebrations for graduates who are completing an academic year full of online school and stripped traditions.


“A math project”

App State, among other schools in the UNC System, announced it will host 13 in-person, socially distanced commencement ceremonies from May 7 to May 12, all featuring the newest regalia: masks.

Jackie Park

North Carolina’s mask mandate is still in effect indoors, but Gov. Roy Cooper announced in his April 28 executive order that masks are no longer required outdoors. App State has a policy that requires face coverings indoors at all times, too. 

Each of App State’s 3,600 spring graduates is allowed to invite two guests to the Holmes Convocation Center ceremonies. The pairs will be seated in “pods” with 6 feet of social distance on all sides. Graduates are seated with the same social distancing measures on the arena floor.

Margaret McCoy, executive director of donor engagement and university events, says creating the plan for this year’s commencement was “a math project.”

Under current restrictions, mass gathering spaces like App State’s 8,000-seat convocation center can welcome 50% of its normal capacity back through its doors. However, because of social distancing requirements, the Holmes Center will seat just 700 people at the ceremonies.

There’s also no processional for graduates because there was no way to do it safely, according to McCoy. After everyone is seated, the chancellor and representatives from each college in the university will have their own processional. 

But, McCoy said, there’s usually a hitch.

“We always have a late student, always somebody coming in, missing their tassel,” she said.

Afterward, graduates will see an in-person ceremony, something their fellow Mountaineers in the class of 2020 didn’t experience.

“I’m a parent too,” said McCoy, whose son graduated last spring. “I missed out on commencement with my first child completely. So you know, I have tons of empathy for students and parents right now.”

Another piece of the “math problem” was navigating Boone’s unpredictable weather.

“I’m in my 13th year (at App State), and in May for commencement, I’ve seen it snow twice, and freezing rain,” McCoy said.

Jackie Park

This means that while other schools can rely on May flowers, App State had to make the call to use the convocation center over somewhere like Kidd Brewer Stadium for fear of bad weather. McCoy said that the one time App State’s commencement was held outside, in the ‘90s, it dumped rain.

App State’s challenge with the weather is unique, McCoy said. This became increasingly clear in the three to four meetings she and other UNC System commencement representatives held over the last several months to share knowledge.

“It was a great collaboration too, because we took things from other institutions, and they called us to follow up on different things,” McCoy said. “But you know, like I said, we’re unique because of our weather, it was easy for some of them to move outside.”

New Traditions

An in-person ceremony, however, means students need tassels and other regalia, which added another level of complication to this year’s ceremonies.

Michael Davis is the outgoing student body president and a senior at App State. He had the opportunity to sit on the commencement committee and provide a student’s perspective.

“Getting out that information took a while because those decisions were moving really fast in terms of ordering cap and gowns. (It) was a pretty short thing,” Davis said. “So just figuring out OK, ‘hey, do we have a backup plan?’ because we know some people aren’t going to order their cap and gown just because some people don’t check their email.”

Despite the quick turnaround, Jostens, a company that sells graduation regalia and yearbooks to 12,000 high schools and 3,000 universities, is still doing consistent sales, according to Jeff Peterson, vice president of marketing for the company.

However, because so many graduation fairs and on-campus ordering events were canceled, Jostens’ website saw an increase in the number of online orders heading to students’ homes. 

Another graduation tradition made easier with relaxed COVID restrictions is senior portraits. 

Grace Foster is a senior commercial photography student who’s been busy this graduation season taking photos of her peers at the iconic App State sign, The Rock and on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Students pay photographers like Foster to have their picture taken decked out in black and gold to post on social media and send along with graduation announcements.


Foster said this semester is the busiest she’s been with senior portrait-taking. She said she feels like COVID isn’t impacting her ability to make the best photos with her clients this spring compared to other graduation seasons when the virus was in full swing. 

“I always ask people if you’d like me to wear a mask. I’ll of course do that,” Foster said. “I try to make people feel as most comfortable as I can.” 

A campus coming together

In years’ past, separate commencement ceremonies were divided among the university’s colleges and schools. So, students belonging to the College of Fine and Applied Arts or the Walker College of Business, and so on would graduate together. This year, that changed as well.

The committee sent graduates an email to sign up for a ceremony – no matter their major or status as a graduate or undergraduate student.

Katey Miller, a music education major, says she’s excited to walk across the stage but wishes her school, the Hayes School of Music, could still stay together for commencement.

“Normally, my ceremony would be in the school of music, with the friends that I have had all of my classes with over my 4 years,” Miller wrote. “That’s sad, but overall I’m really happy to have the in-person option and the online option for those who do not feel comfortable or safe to do in-person and for family far away.”

Similarly, Davis said it’s worthwhile for his parents to be “sitting up in the nosebleeds” just to have the ceremonial rite of passage of commencement.

“I do not want to walk across my living room in my cap and gown,” Davis said. “That was kind of the hill I was wanting to die on.”

To make it all happen, Mountaineers from all walks of campus life came together on the committee: from Campus Dining to App State Police. However, more than just those on the committee roster jumped in to help.

“Our entire campus has come together for this,” McCoy said. “I cannot say that I have not had one area on campus that said, ‘What do you need? How can we help? Can we volunteer?’” she said.

McCoy said that in all her years at App State, she thinks this year’s commencement ceremony is one of the most comprehensive things the campus has done.

“Margaret (McCoy) likes to use the phrase, ‘we’re building the plane as we fly it,” Davis says. “I think it’s still flying.”