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Class Of 2020 Has Caps And Gowns — But Not Usual Pomp And Circumstance

Updated at 3:05 p.m. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, college students all over the country were sent home to finish up the school year and it soon became clear that graduation ceremonies would be canceled. 

For some — even without the usual pomp and circumstance — the significance of wearing a cap and gown this year is especially poignant.

Nancy Buffone, associate chancellor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said seniors in their class of 2020 let commencement staff know they still wanted to wear their caps and gowns on May 8, the day graduation was supposed to take place. 

“Even though there is not going to be a virtual ceremony, they want to celebrate the day they should have been at McGuirk Stadium graduating,” Buffone said. 

Though caps and gowns are often shipped to campus bookstores (and UMass students already paid for them through student fees), some students have been requesting they be shipped home. That’s what UMass Senior Noah Miranda did.

Miranda is among the 5,500 undergrads disappointed not to walk next month.

“Especially after working for four years and really devoting my life to education and what I've done so far,” Miranda said. 

Miranda, who was a dormitory resident advisor, is now living back home with his family in southeastern Massachusetts. Going forward, he plans on applying to medical school.

Meanwhile he's studying for finals and volunteering as a patient escort at Massachusetts General Hospital. Even though self-isolating from his family, in a few weeks Miranda said they plan on having some kind of "normal” graduation day.

“I'll go outside, cap and gown on, so we can take those pictures,” Miranda said.

Tassels, robes and rings

Graduation regalia is big business and competitive. UMass Amherst works with Jostens, which this year announced it's venturing into the businesss of virtual ceremonies. 

The University of Connecticut and almost 2,000 other colleges get their regalia from Oak Hall Cap and Gown. Joseph D’Angelo, president at the Virginia-based company, said putting on that cap and gown this graduation season, even without commencement exercises, still means something.

“We worked very hard in college, and to flip that robe on or flip the cap and tassel on — it’s a sign of achievement,” D’Angelo said. 

Meanwhile, 300 Oak Hall employees have been working behind their sewing machines (spaced 6 1/2 feet apart, D’Angelo said) making tens of thousands of face masks

“Johns Hopkins provided the fabric for us,” D’Angelo said. 

Demand for graduation regalia this season is not as high as usual, D'Angelo said. But he's not that concerned, as canceled ceremonies are expected to take place later in the year or even in 2021. 

What to wear and when?

Members of the Smith College Class of 2020 already had their caps and gowns on hand for a February tradition called Rally Day. Smith’s May commencement will be virtual, complete with an A-List graduation speaker, U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

Mount Holyoke students are having their college “scarves” sent to their homes to be worn the day they were supposed to graduate. The school expects to hold the 2020 commencement at a later date.  

Hampshire College doesn’t have a dress code for its commencement exercises, virtual or otherwise, and the formal 2020 commencement is rescheduled for a weekend in October.  

UMass has not yet reschedued its 2020 commencement. For now, Buffone said UMass staff are working on making something memorable for students online.

"We are planning a special mini-event for them on May 8,” Buffone said. “We’ve got a few surprises that we're working on for them," though Buffone wouldn't be specific. 

Could Cardi B be returning to campus two years after she played at the Mullins Center? Maybe a dozen or so top UMass officials will sing the “Go UMASS” fight song on Zoom?

In all seriousness, Buffone did wonder if students, while celebrating at home or wherever they might be on May 8, would decorate their caps, as is tradition, and toss them in the air.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that UMass Amherst's 2020 commencement had been rescheduled for early fall. UMass' Nancy Buffone said the event will be rescheduled "as public health guidance allows."

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."
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