SGA discusses possibilities for 2020 graduates

The Northern Essex Community College Commencement and Executive Committees conferred with the school’s Student Government Association recently to address how NECC’s 2020 graduation proceedings and teaching rules will be affected by coronavirus-caused social distancing guidelines recently mandated by Mass. Governor Charlie Baker (R).

 Via the first-ever SGA public Zoom meeting, a communication format which will replace the student government’s usual in-person, weekly public meetings for an indefinite period of time. SGA members spoke with Commencement Committee chairs Ernie Greenslade, Susan Shain and Janice Rogers as well as with Executive Committee chair Sheila Muller, whose body oversees and facilitates processes related to NECC’s finances, academics and many other committees. The Commencement Committee chairs discussed with SGA members how to best execute what will almost certainly be a virtual 2020 graduation ceremony, and Muller detailed the college’s plans to avoid implementing an accommodating pass/fail grading system (in lieu of its usual letter grade methodology) despite NECC classes’ recent conversion to a new, totally online learning format.

She was, however, receptive to SGA President Samantha Cook’s suggestion to encourage professors to grade leniently and accommodatingly during a pandemic which has caused many students, especially parents who attend NECC, extra work (and consequent stress) like homeschooling children who usually go to school outside of the house. Overall, the cooperation between the SGA and college committee members seemed to confirm the SGA’s long-standing claim that it is the liaison between the student body and NECC higher-ups. With Greenslade even saying, “We’re working with the SGA and other students to finalize the details [of our plans].”

Greenslade said that the college’s scheduled May 16 graduation ceremony will almost definitely be cancelled and added that she and other commencement committee members feel skeptical about postponing the ceremony until later this year. She justified this skepticism by reasoning that when social distancing guidelines will be lifted remains unclear. So, instead of planning to hold a conventional ceremony this year, a gathering which Greenslade said usually attracts about 3,000 people, the college reported that Greenslade is entertaining the idea of a virtual commencement. She explained to student government members, “We were thinking of having a virtual, asynchronous celebration in August, and there would be different aspects to it. One would be a site. I don’t know if that would be a website or what it would be.” Editor’s Note: The college has since announced that it would hold a virtual graduation in August. 

Greenslade further detailed the possible attributes of the hypothetical webpage by saying, “[On it] we would have commencement highlights. We’d have remarks from [NECC President] Lane [Glenn]; we’d have remarks from our [student] speaker…And we’d have recognition of all the grads, you know, maybe a listing of the names, maybe a reading of all the names.”

In addition to the use of a website to deliver speaker remarks and important information to 2020 graduates, a virtual commencement would, according to Greenslade, also involve sending hard materials out to students: “The other big part would be that each graduate receives a celebration package that would have maybe their cap, hopefully their diploma, a gift from the alumni office…It would be a celebration in a box, kind of.”

This physical component and the website, said Greenslade, could together be used to replicate an in-person graduation ceremony, as students could take and send to the college via the commencement webpage some photos and videos of themselves holding their graduation gifts. These photos and videos would then be used by the Commencement Committee, claimed Greenslade: “We’ll share that on the site. And, at the end, we’d like to do a video that includes snippets from the speeches, includes all the content that we get submitted from students [with their package gifts]. It’s a celebration video.”

Commencement Committee chairs also reported that NECC President Lane Glenn is pushing to give 2020 graduates the option to walk in the 2021 graduation line, a move which would likely mean the appropriation of funds (to the 2021 commencement) larger than the usual amount of money dedicated to graduation ceremonies says  Greenslade.

However, SGA members and Muller pointed out that students need to provide outfit measurements in order to receive garments that fit them (students usually order and pay for their own gowns). Therefore, according to members and Muller, caps and gowns would be incompatible with a non-personalized, surprise-oriented graduation package. However, this observation was made after Greendale, Shain and Rogers had left the meeting. It is possible that Muller will, per the description of her occupation, reach out to the chairs to notify them of the conclusion reached by the student government. Whether or not students would be paying for caps and gowns they receive in the package (if they receive any garments at all) is also unknown at this time.

Greenslade repeatedly emphasized that the 2020 virtual commencement ceremony concept is still in its early planning stages and that no real finalizations to the plan have been made.

Muller stressed that even though some community and four-year colleges in Mass. have committed to using a lenient pass/fail grading system for the rest of the spring 2020 semester, NECC’s administration, namely Academic and Student Affairs Vice President Bill Heinemen, currently favors retention of a letter grade system. She explained this inclination by saying, “They are steering away from pass/fail only because it could affect financial aid and GPAs and how transfers work.”

Essentially, this means that NECC does not want to risk losing federal and state grants whose delivery to the college is contingent upon student recipients’ trying to maintain GPAs above a certain threshold. After all, the US and Mass. governments routinely, through methods such as reviewing professors’ roster reports and recipients’ grades, check on grant recipients’ academic statuses and progress. And it is unclear how pass/fail grades would be factored into a semester or cumulative GPA assessment paramount in determining whether or not aid should be delivered to a student. Furthermore, four-year institutions that 2020 graduations plan to transfer to in the fall of 2020 may not use or accept pass/fail grades So  the transfer of NECC credits from a pass/fail spring 2020 semester to a four year degree at a university which does not use pass/fail could be impossible.

But Muller, who is also a business professor at NECC, did express that leniency, just not in the form of pass/fail, should be adopted by the college. She added after Cook brought up how the pandemic has brought unforeseen stress into the lives of students, especially students whose children or siblings usually attend school away from home but must now be homeschooled by (or at least with the help of) their parents or siblings. Muller responded to Cook’s point by articulating, “Bill Heinemen has made it very, very clear to all faculty to think about the difficulties of what students are experiencing, lack of technology, lack of internet, loss of jobs and work. So all of that taken into consideration, to be lenient on deadlines, to really try to reach out to students and to try to engage them in different ways, find substitutions, or whatever it might be…I can’t promise that every faculty member is going to be doing that, but that’s something that Bill is very strongly encouraging.”

Muller recommended that students having trouble with a specific professor’s course requirements during the pandemic should contact other faculty, herself or other committee chairs and/or the dean of the department the professor teaches for. She said that these contacts could effectively communicate with a professor and inform them of a student’s concerns, while allowing any student who comes forward with complaints to remain anonymous.