By Erin Maxwell || Staff Writer
If you’re still able to access your pre-COVID memories, you’ll remember that F&M’s 2020 commencement had already been steeped in controversy before the pandemic even hit. The college’s administration had announced that, due to an altered venue, tickets for graduation would be limited to five per student, well below the number of family members most seniors wished to invite. Soon, though, what began as an extended spring break would quickly turn into a full shutdown, leaving students wondering if they would get to have a graduation ceremony at all. Now, almost nine months later, that question remains unanswered.
The college’s hesitance to give the senior class a solid answer regarding their commencement made sense at first; the science was still developing, and the institution, along with the rest of the world, was in full crisis-management mode. Still, as weeks and months went by, the senior class watched as peer institutions, including public universities and small liberals arts colleges alike, sent out lavish “congratulations boxes” to their senior classes, regardless of their future graduation plans. Seniors flocked to social media to express their disappointment; it became clear that F&M was the outlier, not even due to the comparative quality of their gifts, but the complete lack of gift-giving at all. They had been forgotten.
In an email sent on April 28th, F&M’s administration tentatively promised an in-person ceremony on December 12th and offered a website page where parents and family could write virtual notes to their graduates. However, this would begin a trend of the F&M’s administration’s reliance on virtual solutions, offering no actual physical items to seniors until after graduation season had come and gone. With the last half of their final spring semester ripped away from them, seniors were left with nothing from their college to hold onto, nothing to indicate that their college was still thinking of them.
Finally, diplomas were delivered to seniors in June, though many of them had become bent in the mail and were missing a traditional diploma cover. A $200,000 piece of paper, bent and late, accompanied by nothing more than an empty box, and perhaps a cord or two from a club if lucky. Still missing was the traditional cap and gown, let alone any spirit wear that was flocking the social media pages of colleges with tuitions’ mere fractions of F&M’s. Maddy Markmann-Porch, another 2020 alumna, could not have been more disappointed. “F&M prides itself on having an outstanding community,” she says, “and places itself on a pedestal high above these same peer institutions.”
But still, the college continued to promise that come December, seniors would have a delayed but equally special celebration. Seniors grasped onto this shred of hope, internally justifying the lack of communication and physical elements from the college. Perhaps the college was just conserving their efforts and budget for the in-person ceremony—everything would be fixed then. Surely they would have their photos of their caps and gowns in front of Shad, their fancy dinners, and hours-long ceremony befitting a private institution.
But as case numbers continued to climb into the fall season, they knew this was only a fantasy. The cancellation of the December commencement ceremony was not a shock to the Class of 2020 but rather a final slap in the face, as the administration fell silent following the announcement. Vague statements of a “virtual commencement” appeared every few weeks in (most) alumni inboxes, with confusing instructions on how to “register” for a glorified slideshow.
So where did the graduation budget go? Hopes rose again this January as the college announced a “special surprise” coming in the mail. Could this finally be a spirit box, possibly even the long-awaited caps and gowns? Surely it must have been something grand enough to be titled a “special surprise”!
A keychain. $10 each, if we are being generous. “A gift from the alumni network,” to be exact, which was accompanied with a generic letter—no cords except the standard house cords that seniors earned—and a cap but no gown. As a final insult to injury, while student-athletes were sent custom F&M watches, the rest of the senior class watched with their…keychains.
“I cried when I opened it,” another spurned 2020 graduate told me. “It felt like such an insult to not even give us cords or a gown more than seven months past our original graduation date. With such a small graduating class, it truly shows the lack of effort on their end that they did not even make a Google Sheet to make sure we were recognized for our four years of work.”
With such a large elapse of time between their graduation and the delivery of a “special surprise,” it would not be presumptuous to expect any gift to at least incorporate the standard regalia. Those missing elements were a painful reminder of the lack of effort on the part of the administration, compounding the seniors’ feelings that their class had been altogether brushed aside.
Last year, the College Board ranked Franklin and Marshall as the 28th most expensive college or university in the country. The budget for graduation is accordingly large to provide seniors a commencement experience worth the investment they had made over the past four years by paying exorbitant tuition. With no promises of even a t-shirt on the way, seniors can’t help but wonder where that budget has gone. Perhaps towards another empty stadium?
So, where can the college go from here? Realistically, much of the damage has already been done; Franklin and Marshall has effectively alienated an entire class that now feels not only forgotten but at this point, disrespected. Watching my sister and her fellow graduates have their hopes peaked every few months only to fall just as fast, has made me aware of the situation to the point of skepticism of F&M’s very intentions. Continuing to rely on the excuse of “extenuating circumstances” is no longer cutting it, not when almost every other undergraduate institution has offered far more than F&M has. Quickly peruse any of their websites, and it is not hard to see. F&M has failed to provide even the bare minimum of a cap, gown, and cords. The “special surprise” of a keychain could not better epitomize the phrase “too little, too late.”
The administration has already sent multiple messages to this forgotten class asking for charitable contributions (requests which are usually met when former students feel as though they were valued as students and had received a return on their investment). Many other colleges, sensitive to this issue, have waited to approach the class of 2020 for donations.
Franklin and Marshall relies heavily on its alumni and student families to survive. But by egregiously skimping on this class, they have alienated a generation of students who will become doctors and lawyers or will work on Wall Street. The college may see their choice regarding the class of 2020’s graduation budget as a cost effective solution for now, but in twenty years, this class may not be so inclined to support their alma mater.
Nine months later, we can no longer point a finger at the pandemic. Franklin and Marshall is the clear outlier, and the class of 2020 is well-aware of it. Proverbially dropping the ball on countless occasions—still with no concrete promises of any recompense—the college has slighted its young graduates again and again, perhaps past the point of reconciliation.
As the spring rapidly approaches, it is our responsibility as the student body to now hold the administration accountable and ensure the class of 2021 does not meet the same fate.
Sophomore Erin Maxwell is a Staff Writer. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.