The Fight for a Fair Graduation: Students Respond to the Latest News About Commencement

In the midst of the current uncertainties about the organization of Commencement for Class of 2020 and Class of 2021, students, Class Representatives, Student Government and the JCU President share their views on the situation. 

Student Commentary

By Marilù Ciabattoni / Staff Writer

This article was written throughout the month of April and the interviews were conducted in the same period.

All around the world, traditional celebrations, music festivals and events are being canceled, moved online, or subjected to heavy restrictions for the second year in a row because of the ongoing critical healthcare situation related to COVID-19. 

From Saint Patrick’s Parade in Dublin, Ireland, to the Coachella Music Festival in California, from the Tokyo Olympics that will be held without a public, to the smaller and more intimate 2021 edition of the Academy Awards, JCU is currently facing this similar struggle for what concerns celebrating both the Class of 2020 and the Class of 2021.

The Commencement Ceremony as it was celebrated before 2020 (via JCU website

How it all Began vs. How it’s Going 

On March 19, a letter via email on behalf of JCU President Franco Pavoncello was sent to the Class of 2020 before public health measures were announced for May, informing that the in-person Commencement scheduled for May 17 will ultimately be held online. The ceremony was meant to celebrate both the Class of 2021 and the Class of 2020, whose in-person Commencement in May 2020 was cancelled after the first outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

JCU President Franco Pavoncello (via JCU website

“Commencement is the single most important public responsibility for a University President,” said President Pavoncello in a Teams interview last week. “It is what sets the tone of an institution like JCU.”

“Commencement is the single most important public responsibility for a University President,” said President Pavoncello in a Teams interview last week. “It is what sets the tone of an institution like JCU.”  

The JCU President, who has been part of John Cabot since 1990, said he wants the students to know that the Administration is doing everything they can to honor their students, as “a dedication to the future of our children.” 

Stressing that the State of Emergency maintained by the Italian government forbids private celebrations, the President explained that the University would be in trouble if they were to organize one, which is why the Gala could not take place as of now. 

“Very often I asked myself how I would have felt at 21 or 22 years old if they had robbed me of one or two years of my life while I was in university,” said the President. 

Luca Azzariti Crousillat, President of Student Government, promptly communicated his views in March via email to the prospect graduates, the Academic Council, and Faculty, responding to the early Commencement announcement. He critiqued a lack of transparency from the Administration in deciding to hold the 2021 Commencement online without first consulting the Student Government or the Class of 2021 graduates. 

The Representative of the Class of 2021, Andrea Leonard Palazzi, also commented on the issue of Commencement. In his Statement of Purpose to apply for the role of Class Representative, Andrea states: “This year’s graduation is not only synonymous with a prestigious academic achievement but is also the sheer evidence that we graduated during a pandemic. We made it, and we deserve the best.” 

“Demonizing the Administration is not the solution here,” Andrea wrote. He stressed that John Cabot is a place of education and educators, and that the Administration would “go against its own ultimate purpose” if they ignored the concerns of students.

“Setting up a Commencement ceremony is not like organizing a last-minute dinner with friends,” wrote Andrea. He also wrote he wasn’t surprised when he learned that Commencement would be held online for the second year in a row, since decisions concerning in-person events are still subject to governmental policies and guidelines. 

According to Andrea, the Commencement Committee—the ad-hoc committee made up of JCU staff members that takes care of the logistical organization of the Commencement—consulted him via email about the plan for an on-line Commencement only one day before the announcement email was sent to the student body. Andrea said he had limited time and action to receive an opinion from the whole class in the lapse of 24 hours. It was also formally clarified that the announcement was sent to the Class of 2020 and not the Class of 2021 by an honest mistake.  

Student Government comments in an email interview that they were elected to amplify the students’ voices, making it their duty to fight for the will of the students and discern between their personal opinions and the will of the collective. They said that if the Administration had talked to Andrea first and tried to give him insights into their plans, students might have reacted differently. 

Despite this initial misunderstanding, the Student Government managed to have “productive conversations” with the Administration in order to come to a middle ground regarding the events related to Commencement in the hope that “everyone – students, faculty, and staff – can enjoy and celebrate their Commencement together,” according to a written interview. 

Aware of the challenges about organizing such an important ceremony, Andrea turned to the Representative of Class of 2020, Micayla Mirabella, to educate himself on “some technical aspects regarding the ceremony that we have failed to appreciate thus far.” 

Andrea later had a formal meeting with President Pavoncello on March 23, and he informed the Class of 2021 about the latest decisions taken via a Zoom Town Hall meeting held on April 6. In this meeting, Andrea stressed that this Commencement will be a “brief, symbolic celebration” and therefore very different from past years. 

The Class Representative Committee is an unofficial body made of eight members which the Class Representative is called to form as per the duties of this role. The main criteria the Representative should follow—but not strictly—are the following: an equal representation of male and women, representation for the Master’s Cohort and representation for Student Government. 

Andrea received help from the Class Representative Committee in the following tasks: helping him carry out other duties of the Representative, communicating with and reaching out to all the members of the Class, moderating debates on Facebook and WhatsApp groups, and administrating the social networks of the Class, and advising him with solutions and recommendations for the Class. 

The members of the 2021 Representative Committee are: President of Student Government Luca Azzariti Crousillat (International Affairs/Economics and Finance); Gianmarco Coppola de Almarza (Economics and Finance/International Business); Pasquale Perrotta (International Business); Eleonora Scaiola (Communications); Theodora Terracina (Political Sciences); Irene Crestanello (International Affairs); Elena Papotto (International Business), and Elizabeth Paris Bermudes (Masters of Arts in Art History). 

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Finding a Compromise and Moving Forward 

The Class Representative Committee approached President Pavoncello on March 23 with a clear objective in mind: postponing the Commencement to September 2021 and gaining extra time, similarly to what the Class of 2020 did. Thanks to the vaccines that are currently being administered around Italy and worldwide, the curve of the pandemic is projected to decrease during the summer, likely prospecting a gradual “return to normal” by the Fall. 

However, this solution wouldn’t be as fair because, according to the President: once one misses the fixed date—in this case, May 17—it becomes impossible to set another date since everyone has their own preferences, making this a situation that requires a date “set in stone.” Moreover, he said that not all the students that are currently finishing their studies at JCU might be in Rome on a later date.  

According to a statement provided by the 2021 Class Representative, at that point it was clear that “adjusting to everybody’s academic and professional needs […] would not assure a solid ground and enough assurance for starting the massive logistical prepping,” including booking the Villa months in advance, gathering and reaching hundreds of mandatory attendees and ensuring nice weather, to list a few factors. 

Thanks to a formal meeting held on March 23, Andrea and the Committee reached an agreement with the Administration that will hopefully accommodate the interest of both parties. At the time this article was written, the entire JCU community was made aware from a letter on behalf of President Pavoncello sent on April 1 that they were working on a creative solution to offer a hybrid option to the originally planned all-virtual ceremony in May 2021. 

If governmental regulations allow it, the tentative plan and solution to date is an event on May 17, taking advantage of outdoor and indoor spaces like terraces and courtyards on campus that would respect strict government health and safety measures, while simultaneously celebrating all together and broadcasting the event virtually to those who will not be able to attend in person. Otherwise, the event will be 100% virtual. 

The President expressed that not only is the organization of this hybrid Commencement a “nightmarish” logistical achievement but also an expensive initiative. However, he said students are worth the effort the university is putting into it. 

“If it were not for the May 17 solution, the Class of 2020 would not have had any ceremony at all,” Andrea concludes. 

A picture from Commencement (via JCU website

The Representative of Class of 2020 Micayla Mirabella said she learned a lot during her experience as Representative, where she had to put her problem-solving skills to the test. At the moment of her election in Spring 2020, her promise to put her class first, and fighting for them was what motivated her during the challenges of her position. 

“Having been Class Representative for over a year now, I can confidently say that the JCU Administration has had our best interest in mind,” she wrote in response to an interview via Messenger. She commended the Administration’s commitment to listening to its students. 

Micayla Mirabella 

“I know it would not be the same, but it’s been almost a year since I’ve actually graduated, so I think it’s time to finally walk across the stage, even if it is virtual,” she wrote. Regarding the possibility of a virtual Commencement, she would accept it only if the situation wouldn’t allow otherwise. 

Aware of how hard it is to represent so many people, she tried to give everybody a voice instead of “speaking” for them. This “tricky situation” made her feel much pressure, but, thanks to the help of her Commencement Committee and the Administration, she now feels proud of her work as Representative, an experience which she “wouldn’t trade” for the world. 

“I am so thankful to represent the Class of 2020,” she writes. “I am thankful that they trusted me to represent them. They have been respectful toward me, and they are always offering ideas, comments, and suggestions to make our Commencement as special as possible.” 

What are Students Saying 

The initial news about Commencement being held online was received in different ways by the JCU students, especially by the graduates of this year and last year.  

On a poll that I conducted on the JCU Undergrad Facebook group, 24 students said they are satisfied with the latest decision that was taken regarding the organization of Commencement: a hybrid, socially distanced ceremony only if last-minute governmental regulations allow it. One person responded “no” and four said it was “complicated.” 

On a second poll I conducted a few days later on the same platform, 22 students said they would still attend Commencement if it were to be held remotely for last-minute inconveniences, while 6 said they will not attend.  

I also reached out to students via the JCU Undergrad Facebook group in early April to ask for their views. The students who volunteered to comment were informed through a post on the JCU Undergrad Facebook Group and the WhatsApp group Graduation 2021. Brief interviews were conducted by text message via Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp. 

Alessia Rosu 

Alessia Rosu (Class of 2021, Communications, Italian) believes the Administration tried their best to accommodate the student needs, but they should have conducted a survey among students to ask their opinions too. Unfavorable to an online Commencement, Alessia thinks the JCU community should try for new options, which is why she said she doesn’t feel as represented by the Student Government, although she does feel satisfied of all the work carried by the 2021 Representative. 

Alessia is also worried about the weather on the day of the ceremony, and fears that it will be held remotely in case of rain. About this concern, the President informed that, if it rains, the Commencement would be held online because the company hired to facilitate the technical aspects of the ceremony wouldn’t provide sophisticated screens and electronics to the university. 

Gaia Sposito 

Gaia Sposito (Class of 2021, Communications, Italian) said she didn’t feel represented in the decision-making process about the Commencement. Although she is satisfied of the efforts made by the Student Government, she noticed how they started informing the student body on a weekly basis “only after we raised certain issues.” When the Class of 2021 found out about the virtual ceremony via e-mail on March 22, Gaia claims that the Student Government knew about this announcement beforehand, and they should have notified the Class before the announcement was made. 

“I personally felt betrayed by JCU when they came out with the online Commencement announcement email,” said Gaia last month. Regarding the possibility of an in-person Commencement, she commented that “JCU could think of so many creative ways to be able to do it”—a big outdoor venue, for instance. 

Regarding these claims, the Student Government clarified that it is not in their jurisdiction to be directly involved in anything related to Commencement, and this is how their role differs from the Class Representative’s, who was trusted by the students to represent their interest at the best of their abilities. 

Caroline Pitts 

Caroline Pitts (Class of 2021, English Literature, American) mainly shares the views of the other students, adding that “obviously we are missing out on a big celebration but that’s not JCU’s fault.” Instead, what matters to her is the ability to celebrate with friends and family, which is something that anyone can do over the summer or whenever it is safe to do so. 

Jean Obeid (Class of 2021, International Affairs/Economics and Finance, Syrian), who ran for Class Representative in 2021, thinks the Administration immediately distanced itself from committing to the Commencement, without even looking at publicly available data and trends regarding COVID.  

From the very beginning, Jean has been against the idea of an online Commencement and has been adamant about hosting a gala for the classes of 2020 and 2021. He argues that regulations allow lunches in yellow zones, which Lazio is entering by the end of April, following Italian Prime Minister Draghi’s latest announcements. He is therefore confident that a gala could take place if restrictions are eased. 

He said he doesn’t feel completely represented by the Students Government and thinks its members keep creating task forces “out of nowhere.”  

In an interview via e-mail Student Government stated: “We, as Student Government, are not directly involved in any commencement discussion; we have formed no task forces.” The President of the Student Government might be called to help with bureaucratic, technical questions, despite being an unofficial committee member. 

Francesca Dalmazzo 

Francesca Dalmazzo (Class of 2021, Humanistic Studies, Italian) thinks that “we have been infused with an overall sense of positivity and, hopefully, we will manage to get the ceremony we all deserve!” 

An online commencement would be “pretty sad and disappointing after spending 3 or 4 years studying a lot and doing our best in order to take advantage of the amazing educational path JCU offers.” 

“I feel sorry for my parents and friends who will not be able to physically attend the ceremony, she says. “I know that I will be able to, and I feel grateful for that.” 

She would also like to congratulate the Graduation Committee representatives because “we would not have been able to get what we have so far without their efforts and determination.” 

Giulia Maggiori 

Giulia Maggiori (Class of 2020, English Literature, Italian) said “a part of me […] was waiting for my name to be called on stage.” She says she will not be able to travel from Oxford to Italy, where she is currently studying for a Master’s Degree and, although she would have rather wait to have a proper celebration with friends and family, she will still attend the hybrid ceremony. 

“It’s not the graduation I had dreamt of,” she says, “but it’s still a moment to celebrate our accomplishments together.” 

Rossella Gangi (Class of 2020, History, Italian) said she didn’t appreciate the way the Administration communicated with students and class representatives. She was particularly disappointed by the announcement made during the Fall of 2020 by the Alumni Association that the Commencement for Class of 2020 would have been held remotely in December 2020. 

She describes the experience of not having had a commencement as “awful” and “hard,” but she commands Micayla for proposing alternatives, actively listening and doing whatever was in her power to properly represent the Class of 2020. 

Rossella finds an online Commencement not as satisfactory as an in-person one, but she understands the necessity for a hybrid format for people who cannot come to Rome physically.  

Sofia Scarpone 

Sofia Scarpone (Class of 2020, Communications, Italian/American) said she disliked the communication from the administration, describing it as “uncommunicative” and “hard to get a hold of” for what concerns answers about common issues.  

Like Rossella, she feels satisfied about Micayla’s job communicating to the students regarding the technical aspects of the ceremony. “Unfortunately, I feel all of our feelings have been put aside,” said Sofia. “We needed answers and we didn’t have them, especially at the beginning.” 

Sofia recalls when she and her friends gathered in Campo de Fiori to watch the ceremony together, saying, “I thought it was going to be live and they were going to say each one of our names.” Instead, they found themselves in front of a 5-minute YouTube video of the President congratulating the Class of 2020. According to Sofia, the most “aggravating and disrespectful” thing is that she felt like they were “bypassed and not recognized.” 

“Unfortunately, I feel a lot of the students don’t care anymore,” Sofia said. “I personally cared because it took me a longer time to graduate, so it as a very big moment for me, especially being the first one of my siblings to graduate.” 

“Walking across the stage is such a huge moment for any of us,” said Sofia. She also commented there should be an option for students who didn’t have the chance to have a real graduation in 2020 or 2021, such as organizing an in-person ceremony in 2022 or even later. 

Manuel Forcina (Class of 2021, Marketing, Italian) has been outspoken about this issue, believing that students are “customers who pay handsomely for the services of this institution,” he said he was very disappointed by the Administration’s initial lack of transparency and bad communication with their students. 

Manuel Forcina 

He said he does not feel represented by the Student Government: “I have not been able to perceive the vigor or desire necessary to resolve the problem of the Commencement in the right way,” he said in a written interview via e-mail. 

In response to Manuel’s concern, Andrea wrote in an e-mail that he is deeply grateful for the hybrid compromise regarding the organization of Commencement, and that he would voice and report Manuel’s questions to the Commencement Committee to the best of his capabilities. 

Instead, Manuel thinks that proposing a hybrid ceremony has worsened the situation rather than improving it, calling it “a remedy worse than the disease.” He said he will not attend the ceremony in protest, “as I believe that I and all the other students in these two classes deserve proper recognition for our efforts.”

Manuel sent a letter to the entire JCU community, proposing a solution to this issue. He conducted a research on the top three universities in the world (CS RANKING)—MIT, Stanford University and Harvard University—proposing to emulate the solution they adopted: holding a virtual or hybrid commencement but only as a temporary solution and then re-invite all graduates of 2020/2021 at the first post-pandemic Commencement, when restrictions around the world will be eased or completely removed. “If universities like Harvard and Stanford can do it, why not JCU?” he asked.

According to President Pavoncello, an institution cannot have two Commencements, as it is a single concluding event as part of the academic year and degrees can only be given once. Once a Class is announced, it is a formal procedure with legal implications that cannot be devalued by being repeated, said the President. A gala, reunion or the so-called convocation—which is what the universities Manuel mentioned most likely intend to hold—do not count as a second Commencement. 

“I have a legal responsibility towards the students,” the President said. “We’re issuing Degrees.” 

The President said he formally promises that as soon as they are allowed to organize a normal, restriction-free Gala, together with the Trustees and the Professors, they will do their best to do so. 

He said he asks students to understand how frustrating and disappointing it is for the Administration to not be able to do the celebration as it has always been organized, and that, if the celebration will be held remotely, is beyond their control. 

The Student Government also clarified that they are not directly involved in any meeting with the Commencement Committee. “We know Andrea and Micayla are working extremely hard for the Commencement, and we trust them in representing the students adequately,” they commented. 

Some students from both Class of 2020 and Class of 2021 have raised further questions about whether part of the tuition they pay for JCU finances the Commencement as well, and so, if the ceremony were to take place online, what would happen to that portion of their money. 

In an e-mail by the Director of the Finance Office, Stefano Curcuruto, he explains: “The Commencement Ceremony and related events/activities are covered by the University’s general operational budget. There is no ‘graduation fee’ at John Cabot University. In the past, graduating seniors paid a ‘graduation fee’ to cover part of the expenses surrounding commencement, but that fee was eliminated in 2010.”  

“It’s not about money,” the President reiterates. “You are our joy, the reason why we’re here. You will be representing John Cabot University in the world, and you will be our pride,” he continued. “And we are going to shortchange you for $100,000?” 

“That is not who we are,” the President concluded. 

Pictures from past Commencements: Courtesy of JCU Web Communications Office 

Single students’ pictures: Courtesy of the students