OPINION: A UP parent's reaction to the 2021 commencement decision

By Lorie Leilani Shelley | March 12, 2021 10:00am
Lorie Leilani Shelley is the parent of a current UP student. Photo courtesy of Lorie Leilani Shelley.

I am the parent of a UP student writing to support Cami Hughes’ thoughtful opinion piece on the decision to hold a virtual ceremony for the Class of 2021. By the time I saw her piece, I had already sent an email to Fr. Poorman questioning that decision, and followed up with a formal letter mailed to the University. Unlike Cami, when I learned of the decision I didn’t have a “mix of emotions”, I had only one: outrage. Fr. Poorman did not respond to either email or written letter, I don’t know if he even read it. So I share that letter with you now, in solidarity with the Class of 2021 who feel disappointed and diminished by the committee’s decision to hold a virtual graduation ceremony.

“I am writing to express my deep disappointment in UP's decision to forgo an in-person graduation ceremony for the class of 2021. Announcing a virtual graduation ceremony at the same time you're boasting of 800+ students safely living and studying on campus shows a callous disregard for the class of 2021. This class dedicated four years to this institution but lost 1.5 years of in-person instruction and college experience. Unlike freshman, sophomores, and juniors, UP's senior class has sacrificed the most and had the most to lose. They lost most of their junior year spring semester to the pandemic and ALL of their senior year; many lost their opportunity to study abroad or complete internships. 

Now you're taking away the last "normal" thing remaining in their college experience – an in-person graduation ceremony. I do understand the class of 2020 also missed out on their graduation, but sir, they missed out on two months of classroom study. The Class of 2021 has missed out on nearly a third of their 4-year University classroom experience – most while concurrently stuck in rental leases and shared living expenses in Portland while doing on-line classes from home.

I am curious to learn what other options this so-called Commencement Exploration Committee explored and why this particular decision was made in February when COVID-19 precautions are still in flux. Most experts predict the majority of people who want vaccinations will receive them by late May. But rather than entertain the possibility of an in-person graduation ceremony, you ruled it out completely. 

I have triplets, all at small, private colleges in three different states, so I speak from experience. My other two seniors' schools admit the logistics of their ceremonies are still under consideration, but the goal is for an in-person, interactive experience. That may take the form of graduation by school on staggered days, drive-by, or in a stadium large enough to allow for social distancing. Or, they may decide on the necessity of a virtual ceremony – as a last resort. Whatever they choose, I am confident their decision will be thoughtful and considered. Sadly I am not convinced the same is true for the University of Portland's decision-making process.

Finally, I can't help but question the sincerity of celebrating the Class of 2021 "at a later date." Surely you know how unlikely it would be to get the graduating class together AFTER May of 2021. Even if true, this could never substitute for a missed ceremony with friends and family members in attendance. If it weren't so sad, this declaration would be laughable; you know it will never happen. UP will never pay for it. Just ask the class of 2020.

This is the message I will carry forward to friends’ children, newspaper letters to the editor, and high school seniors who may be considering UP for their studies: It's all fine and dandy as long as you're still paying tuition. But once the last tuition payment is received, the University of Portland loses interest. Freshmen plus "select" students can live and study in-person for five months, but allow ONE day to celebrate seniors' academic achievement in person? "Hell no," appears to be UP's answer.

Schools throughout the world have sought creative, innovative, and safe ways to celebrate their graduates. With this early decision to hold a virtual ceremony, UP took a lazy, uncreative, detached approach to the Class of 2021. I add my voice to the chorus of student voices who say, "Shame on you, UP." Please remove my name from the University's annual giving solicitation list.”

Lorie Leilani Shelley is the parent of a current UP student. She can be reached at lorie.shelley@sen.ca.gov

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