It's been a difficult senior year for Winona State University student Kiara VandenLangenberg, a double major in nursing and Spanish who has learned completely online since the pandemic began and missed out on many cherished aspects of college life.

That's why VandenLangenberg was thrilled to hear Winona State is planning to hold an in-person ceremony on May 7 for graduating seniors. While the "name reading" ceremony will not include the usual keynote speeches or diploma-giving, graduates will get to stride across the stage, proudly turn their tassels and ring a large cast-iron bell to mark their milestone.

"Having your name read aloud feels like just such a big deal at this point," VandenLangenberg said. "I think things are finally starting to kind of turn around and resemble somewhat of a normal graduation experience."

For the first time since the pandemic began, many Minnesota universities are bringing back in-person ceremonies to honor their graduates. While these celebrations will mark a return to normalcy of sorts, there will be trade-offs — such as capacity restrictions, guest limits and social distancing requirements — to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Some colleges are planning in-person ceremonies for not just this year's graduates but the class of 2020, too.

Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter plans to hold commencement for its roughly 500 seniors on May 13 inside its campus athletic arena. Three days later, the private college will host a ceremony for 2020 graduates who missed out on a traditional commencement. Administrators opted for indoor graduations to avoid possible weather disruptions, but in doing so they had to limit the ceremonies to just the seniors, no guests, said Barb Larson Taylor, Gustavus' associate vice president for marketing and communication.

"We want to provide something meaningful for these graduates," Larson Taylor said, while noting that "all of us are feeling the loss of not having families there."

Brief, but family invited

The University of St. Thomas surveyed its seniors earlier this year and they overwhelmingly favored a traditional graduation ceremony, said President Julie Sullivan. And that is largely what they will get.

St. Thomas will hold several small outdoor ceremonies for undergraduate and graduate students — with up to two guests each — at its football stadium in May. The ceremonies will last only an hour to minimize the chance of COVID-19 transmission. Sullivan and student speakers will give brief remarks.

If severe weather occurs, the ceremonies will move inside and guests will no longer be allowed because of indoor capacity constraints.

"I have been participating in commencement ceremonies for literally decades. This probably will be one, if not the most, exciting," Sullivan said. "Because once you've lost something, you really know how valuable it was."

Just four of the seven universities in the Minnesota State public college system — St. Cloud State University, Bemidji State University, Southwest Minnesota State University and Winona State — are planning in-person events. Winona State and Southwest are letting graduates walk in person but having commencement speakers give remarks during separate virtual events.

Minnesota State University, Mankato, the state's second largest university, will opt for virtual ceremonies for the second straight year. The university will offer graduates and their families a professional photo opportunity on campus at a separate time.

Backlash at the U

The University of Minnesota's Rochester, Morris and Crookston campuses are planning in-person commencement ceremonies while the Duluth campus has opted for a virtual celebration.

The U's flagship Twin Cities campus chose to let each of its programs decide how to celebrate graduation. The Carlson School of Management and School of Nursing are among those planning in-person ceremonies while programs such as the College of Liberal Arts, the university's largest program, will celebrate virtually.

"We are ready to pivot at a moment's notice if conditions get worse," said Carlson School Dean Sri Zaheer.

The university's decision to let programs choose how to hold their commencements has angered some who say it is not fair that some U students will get to walk across the stage while others will not.

"It's just weird to me that our university would allow some colleges to have one and not others and not expect any backlash," said U senior Leah Schiffman, who's studying political science and global studies.

Schiffman and fellow U senior Morgan McElroy recently launched a petition asking the College of Liberal Arts to consider an in-person commencement. They argued that TCF Bank Stadium could safely seat as many as 10,000 people while still complying with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Sara Danzinger, the College of Liberal Arts' director of internal communications and media relations, said renting the stadium would cost "hundreds of thousands of dollars per day."

About 2,400 liberal arts students are eligible for graduation each year. To accommodate them and their guests and to comply with state health guidelines, Danzinger said the college would have to hold multiple in-person ceremonies spaced hours apart. The college explored in-person options but determined they were "unattainable both in timing, organization and financially," she said.

"We absolutely understand where they're coming from and we're disappointed as well," Danzinger said. "But no ceremony is worth putting students and their loved ones at risk."

Ryan Faircloth • 612-673-4234