Washington State University Vancouver held a drive-thru graduation ceremony Saturday afternoon, transforming the campus access roads and parking lots into a mile-long procession route for graduates from the fall 2020 and spring 2021 terms.
Graduates drove cars and the occasional limousine decked out with balloons, flags and signs, weaving through multiple stations along the route to pick up their diploma covers and gifts from the student government and alumni, and to pose for pictures with mascot Butch T. Cougar.
Most students were accompanied by friends and family either riding with them or following along in additional cars.
The event was the second of two graduation ceremonies Saturday. The first was a virtual ceremony held in the morning for graduates throughout the Washington State University system.
Saturday’s ceremony marked the second year in a row in which the Vancouver campus has had to host a non-traditional ceremony due to the COVID-19 pandemic, although officials said this year there was more time to perfect the formula, including a carefully structured route and an army of faculty and volunteers to staff the booths, wave flags along the route and keep everything on track.
“It takes a village to pull this off,” said Brenda Alling, director of marketing and communications at WSU Vancouver.
Last year’s drive-through was held in August after the pandemic forced a cancellation of the original May graduation ceremony, as well as a second attempt in July, according to WSU Vancouver Chancellor Mel Netzhammer, so there was a smaller and more subdued turnout by that point in the summer.
But it had already become clear by then that the 2021 ceremony would need to use the same format, he said, so Saturday’s drive-through was planned from the start and held on the actual graduation day.
“This group of students has spent the whole past year and a half online,” he said, so it was important to make sure they could have a face-to-face graduation event even if it had to be in a non-traditional format.
More than 300 students out of the 1,018 in this year’s graduating class signed up to participate, according to Alling. The graduating class included 32 doctoral candidates, 72 master’s candidates and 914 bachelor’s candidates.
The graduates were divided into timeslots across the three-and-a-half-hour event in order to space the line out, and the cars were outfitted with color-coded placards to help staff quickly prepare the right set of materials for students who were set to receive honor cords and other academic regalia.
The graduates were enthusiastic, often cheering as they passed through the line, but several also expressed a sense of wistfulness about the realities of their final year and the ceremony format.
“It’s better than nothing,” said graduate Yekaalo Habtemichael.
Alling and Netzhammer agreed, saying they hope this year will be the last time the university will have to use the drive-through format.
“Nothing replaces walking across that stage and having that moment in the spotlight,” Alling said.