BEMIDJI -- Graduates at Bemidji State University will have the chance to toss their caps in the air together in the Sanford Center this spring instead of in their individual living rooms as many were forced to last year.

BSU recently announced it will hold three in-person commencement ceremonies on Friday, May 7, with limited guest attendance. The first will be at 9 a.m. for the College of Arts, Education and Humanities, the second at noon for the College of Business, Mathematics and Science and the last will be at 3 p.m. for the College of Individual and Community health.

This decision came as a pleasant surprise for some, after BSU previously announced that the commencement ceremony would be primarily virtual again, but changed those plans in mid-March.

Travis Greene, BSU associate vice president for Student Life and Success, said everything changed when the governor and the Minnesota Department of Health came out with new guidance for large gatherings, opening the door for a possible in-person ceremony.

“We were really presented with two options at the time -- basically have one graduation event for all of the graduates from all three colleges, but the capacity at the Sanford Center would have been exhausted, and we would not have been able to allow family members or loved ones in attendance. Or, we could have three smaller events by college, and that would allow us to have graduating students invite two guests,” he said.

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The choice was clear.

“Even though that will mean more work on BSU’s as part as far as speakers, speeches, all that good stuff. It’s the right thing to do,” Greene said.

He said right now, BSU is planning for around 300 graduates per ceremony.

“Historically, there have been around 1,100 to 1,200 students who are eligible to graduate (each year), but only about 80% actually show up to participate in walking across the stage,” Greene said. “We don't know yet if that's going to hold true or if there's going to be more of an interest because this is the first thing that we've been able to do for a year and a half that's live and in person.”

Due to the capacity of the Sanford Center and current Minnesota Health Department guidelines, the space can only host 925 people in the audience.

Though the ceremonies will be held in person at the Sanford Center, things won’t look entirely “back-to-normal.”

Both graduates and guests will be required to wear masks, and diplomas will not come with a handshake. Each graduate will be provided with up to two tickets for loved ones to attend. Those who cannot attend will be able to watch the event streamed live on the Bemidji State website.

“We will be live streaming this event, so you don't need to come to Bemidji, you could watch from the comfort of your home, or if they come to town, from the comfort of their hotel room or wherever they're staying, and they can participate and watch remotely, for those who are not able to get tickets for the event,” he said.

Along with being safe and meaningful, Greene said a large goal of these three ceremonies will be speed.

“Brevity is what we're going for this year,” he said. “In order to get through three ceremonies, we're looking to do about an hour for each college. That includes the processional, and you know people walking across the stage to pick up their diploma. We recognize that graduating students and their families aren't there to hear a lot of speeches for hours and hours and hours, so what we're really looking for is to have meaningful short addresses.”

Greene said some of these addresses will be pre-recorded, for example, from Minnesota State Chancellor Devinder Malhotra and Bemidji Mayor Jorge Prince, while others, like student speakers and BSU President Faith Hensrud, will address the crowds in person.

Through this, officials hope to keep the focus on the graduates and their accomplishments, Greene said. He added students have expressed gratitude toward BSU for making it happen, despite challenges.

“These rituals are important and they mean a lot,” he said. “People are really excited to be able to come together with their peers, with family, friends and other loved ones in the audience and to have this event, so the feedback we receive is just a lot of appreciation.”

Some may wonder why the graduation ceremonies won’t be held outside or in an on-campus building. Greene said there are no buildings on campus large enough to house even the split ceremonies and still accommodate capacity restrictions.

Outdoor locations were also off the table because, in the case of inclement weather, there would not be a feasible indoor backup plan.

What about the students who graduated last year? BSU promised 2020 graduates some sort of in-person event at some point, however, they are not being invited to this one, due to capacity restrictions.

“Not yet sadly, we’ve talked about it,” Greene said. “That does not mean that we do not feel it important to have a milestone event in-person with the class of 2020 when it's safe to do so. Does that mean we have another in-person ceremony on campus at a later date, or does it mean we have an extended Homecoming weekend where we have an opportunity for photos? We'll need to figure that out. But unfortunately at this time, the class of 2020 will need to continue to hang tight.”