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COVID-19 spikes force WCU to shift from in-person to virtual commencements for December

By Bill StudencChancellor commencement

Chancellor Kelli R. Brown

In response to concerns about the surge of COVID-19 cases across North Carolina and the U.S. and in consultation with the Jackson County Department of Public Heath, Western Carolina University is canceling the modified in-person commencement ceremonies scheduled for Dec. 10-13 and shifting to a series of virtual ceremonies.

The rescheduled events will be livestreamed beginning at 9 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 12, with the announcement of the names of all members of the spring, summer and fall 2020 graduating classes.

The ceremonies will include remarks from Chancellor Kelli R. Brown, Provost Richard Starnes and deans of WCU’s academic colleges. Peter Hans, president of the University of North Carolina System; Bryant Kinney, chair of the WCU Board of Trustees; and Phil Byers, member of the UNC Board of Governors, also will deliver virtual greetings to the graduates.

“This decision absolutely breaks my heart. Commencement is a major milestone, and I know how much our students and their families were looking forward to participating in an in-person commencement ceremony, even a no-frills event like we were planning for our 2020 graduating classes,” Brown said.

“We absolutely must make the health and safety of all members of our campus community, as well as our Jackson County neighbors, our top priority. County officials were concerned, and rightfully so, at the thought of thousands of students, parents and other loved ones coming into town during this time of surge of coronavirus cases,” she said.

The virtual commencement ceremonies will take over the course of a single day, and names of all graduating students will be announced live as part of the events, said Lowell Davis, associate vice chancellor for student success and chair of a campus commencement planning committee.

“We believe we had a solid plan in place that would have allowed us to stretch ceremonies over a four-day period with strict limitations on attendance, but recent spikes in the number of COVID-19 cases across the region, state and nation have forced us to pivot to a virtual ceremony,” Davis said.

The reconfigured online celebrations are designed to honor graduates who were scheduled to participate in May commencement events postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, students who completed degree requirements during this year’s summer sessions, and members of the fall 2020 graduating class who are currently completing degree requirements.

WCU announced in March the postponement of all spring commencement exercises that were originally scheduled for May 8 and 9. University officials had considered a date in early August for the rescheduled ceremonies, but ongoing uncertainty regarding sufficient improvements in the COVID-19 situation combined with logistical difficulties of holding a large-scale event so close to the opening of the fall semester made the December dates a better option.

Each graduating student will receive a packet of commemorative commencement items via U.S. mail. Members of the fall 2020 graduating class also should expect to receive their diplomas through the mail. Graduates in the 2020 spring and summer classes should have already received their diplomas.

The current schedule for the Dec. 12 ceremonies is:

  • Belcher College of Fine and Performing Arts – 9 a.m.
  • College of Business – 11 a.m.
  • College of Education and Allied Professions – 1 p.m.
  • College of Engineering and Technology – 3 p.m.
  • College of Health and Human Sciences – 5 p.m.
  • College of Arts and Sciences – 7 p.m.

The university is not planning to reschedule in-person commencement ceremonies for 2020 graduates. The university is exploring the possibility of special in-person alumni recognition opportunities for members of the 2020 graduating classes when conditions allow. More details will be announced at a later date.

Other information about WCU’s virtual commencement ceremony will be forthcoming. Information also will be available online at

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