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Graduation During a Pandemic: Going Above and Beyond for Students

After three months of online learning, the Jakarta Intercultural School (JIS) Class of 2020 was not excited about the prospect of an online graduation ceremony. The very things they missed most — connections with their friends and their school — were likely to be overlooked on screen. Then, they received an invitation to an alternate ceremony.

On a sunny Saturday morning in June last year, fully masked JIS seniors and their family members arrived in their cars at the back gate of the main JIS campus in South Jakarta. Waiting to greet them were volunteer faculty members who gave them an iPad with preloaded messages that guided them on a journey to the graduation stage.

As they drove through, they listened to a speech by our Head of School, Dr. Tarek Razik, and watched video clips of their high school years. Along their route, they also had the chance to stop periodically at photo points with different symbolic backdrops. They were even surprised at one point by the JIS Dragon mascot.

For many, that June afternoon would be the first time they had been on campus since the nationwide move to home and online learning three months earlier.

Upon arriving at the front parking lot, the would-be graduates were allowed to leave their vehicle and enter a colorful becak (bicycle pedicab), a unique icon of Indonesia. Behind the handlebars were teacher-volunteers who drove them to an outdoor stage. With their families watching from their vehicles, they crossed the adorned stage to receive their diplomas from the Head of School. Family photo stops manned by more faculty volunteers closed out their “Carmencement 2020” journey.

It’s now nearly a year later and varying degrees of pandemic restrictions are still in place across Southeast Asia, including Indonesia. Many schools continue to conduct lessons, extracurricular activities, and various events via Zoom or other digital platforms, while others are finding their rhythm with a blended learning model. As we near the end of the 2020/21 academic year, many in the international school community find themselves grappling with the same dilemma it faced last year: what to do for graduation.

As with all things created by the pandemic, disruption is an opportunity to rethink what is important and why we have done things a certain way over the years. This was a time to challenge conventional thinking, be innovative educators, and make the graduation ceremony uniquely special for each graduate and their family.

“Whether in person or virtually, it is a day that needs to be celebrated,” said Clint Calzini, the High School Principal of JIS.

“The graduation ceremony is a celebration of the high school journey and honors the students for their accomplishment of completing their course of studies. This tradition is important to students, parents, teachers, administrators as the culminating event before the graduates move on to their next stage in life.”

So after extensive discussions last year, fully taking into consideration various external limitations at that time, JIS high school teachers and administrators agreed that crossing the stage to accept a diploma, turning the tassel, and tossing that cap were rites of passage that needed to be actualized with in-person pomp and circumstance. There was still hope of hosting a small ceremony inside the theater where graduation is traditionally held, but when indoor gatherings were officially prohibited by the government, we had to get creative. Thus, Carmencement 2020 was born. 

The moniker was, of course, an unofficial one that had germinated from a light moment between the Carmencement team. But it stuck and was used with affection as members of the school community became part of the planning process, including students. 

Collaboration is an instrumental point of strength in any major school undertaking; we realized early on that we would need the personal and professional perspectives of various stakeholders to create a fantastic experience for our seniors, consider what was important to them and their families (personal touches like photo ops, for example), and respect local government regulations.

“We had mere weeks of creative planning to create a model that would satisfy safety protocols yet still honor the student and the class in a meaningful way. This required a total team effort,” said Calzini. “The result was a great celebration that honored the students even though it was not a traditional ceremony.”

Though it developed from an unprecedented situation, the pod approach may just stick in the future as an alternative — if not preferred — way of providing students with a memorable commencement experience. What we learned from Carmencement 2020 was that families loved the more personalized journey to the graduation stage. Students expressed their appreciation of how much personal attention they received, which in turn, reminded them of their connection to JIS.

Other key points for schools to consider if they choose to take this smaller pod approach are simple yet meaningful ways to invoke school spirit, such as including your mascot during the event, inviting students to contribute to a digital slideshow, or creating a website or social media account dedicated to their big day.

And of course, your host country will have a special place in their memories. Incorporating unique elements of the local culture and traditions not only adds character to the occasion but also celebrates the diversity of your graduating class.

Before getting creative, however, it’s necessary to take into account any government regulations that may be in place that outline conditions such as mask-wearing or other forms of personal protective equipment (PPE), capacity limitations, physical distancing requirements, temperature checks, and so on.

“You need to work within the legal parameters that may apply to your unique situation. Health and safety should especially be strongly considered regarding face-to-face, in-person activities,” said Razik. “Once you have the logistics taken care of, then you can have your brainstorming session.”

In the end, the restrictions bred innovation for our otherwise standard graduation tradition. When the going got tough, the tough got creative and we were able to pull off a perhaps more memorable ceremony overall. Families were honored by the ingenuity and commitment to this culminating moment in their JIS journey. Even when indoor ceremonies are allowed again, there are many elements of the personalized Carmencement model that will live on at JIS.