by JESS KIRBY
On Thursday, April 15, students from the classes of 2020 and 2021 were supposed to receive a link to sign up for a commencement ceremony. For some, the link never arrived after their cell phone carriers blocked the text message.
“At 12:06 on Thursday I got the text that said ‘Greetings from Mary Washington!’ and nothing else,” said Sara Lester, who graduated in December 2020 and majored in business administration. “I waited thinking a link or another text would eventually come through.”
A few minutes later, Lester came across a post on the UMW meme page about the same problem.
“That’s when I read the comments and realized some people were able to sign up and some hadn’t even received the link like myself,” she said. “Also, I noticed a comment that said all Saturday slots were taken which really got me heated because I still hadn’t even received the link.”
According to Ali Hieber, the coordinator of community events, students were supposed to receive two text messages that day.
“The first was a general ‘greetings’ message required with opt out options and the second would follow with a link to choose an available ceremony. All messages were to go out at noon on April 15,” said Hieber. “The company who sent the messages on behalf of the University indicated that cellular carriers blocked messages. They provided a list of names of those students impacted and we are following up to assist them in scheduling a ceremony. An apology and a general link for the class of 2020 and 2021 was shared via email for those who were not able to sign up with the text link. We continue to follow-up with students who did not receive the original text and need assistance registering for a ceremony.”
Since Lester was not able to sign up for a Saturday ceremony, her fiance will not be able to attend.
“I really did not want to do it at all, but my fiance was super excited for me and wanted to go,” said Lester. “I of course wanted Saturday because that was the original day they mentioned months ago when it was a possibility we’d still do it all as one class. And that was the day I’d told my family to expect to come. I’m truly bummed because my fiancé (the only reason I really agreed to go) cannot attend now because he does not have [Sunday] off.”
Katherine Ellson, a senior double majoring in psychology and religious studies, also never received a link to sign up for a ceremony.
“My friends and I had all coordinated beforehand to find a time slot that worked for all of us, that way we could graduate together,” she said. “On Thursday, I was the first one to get the ‘Greetings’ text, but all my friends were the first to get the actual link – which I never got.”
Because she did not receive the link, Ellson will not be able to graduate with her friends.
“After about two hours or so of waiting, I went ahead and used the link someone had posted on one of the Facebook pages,” she said. “Of course, by that time, all the slots on Saturday had been taken. My friends were all able to get the Saturday slot we’d planned on, except for me. And I’ll be honest, I was pretty devastated. Considering everything we’ve been through the past year or so, it meant a lot to me that I’d be able to graduate with my friends. And then, as a result of an error, that was taken away from me.”
Ellson created a poll on her class Facebook page to see how many students did and did not receive the link to sign up. As of publication, 94 students responded that they did receive the link, while 47 did not.
Both Lester and Ellson reached out to Hieber to see what could be done about the issue, but the time slots for Saturday were already full.
“At this time, the three ceremonies for Saturday, May 8 are at capacity,” said Hieber in an email to Lester. “I do not have the ability to add additional students as we are under strict guidance for social distancing and limited attendance. I hope your guests will be flexible and celebrate you on Sunday!”
Ellson wishes UMW had restarted the sign-up process to give everyone a fair chance.
“I think what they should have done is completely redo the sign-up process immediately after figuring out what went wrong,” she said. “At this point, it’s a little too late for that… Their ‘solution’ was to sign us up for the remaining ceremonies, which were all on Sunday. I’m relatively lucky because I can still attend a graduation ceremony, it just won’t be with my friends. I know of some people who won’t be able to walk at all because they couldn’t get off work on Sunday, didn’t get the link and didn’t have a chance to get a Saturday time. I’d liken that response to one of those generic-brand band aids that falls off after 10 minutes.”
“As far as what they could do better, they could start over,” she said. “Would that mean that some people who were lucky enough to get a Saturday spot lose their spot? Possibly. If that’s the case, make more ceremonies happen on Saturday… If they are unwilling to do that, reimburse me for my graduation regalia that I bought days before this whole disaster.”
As a transfer student, Lester was hoping graduation would be a memorable experience at UMW.
“I transferred to UMW in fall 2019 and so I never got a true UMW experience and was hoping this would be it but everything since I got here has been laughable. And I still never received the link.”