While the COVID-19 pandemic has robbed us of many special moments, Northern Illinois University is determined that the graduating classes of 2020 will get the send-off they deserve.

This Saturday and Sunday, the university will host virtual commencement ceremonies to honor the accomplishments of those individuals, streaming  online ceremonies where students, family, friends, faculty and staff can gather in cyberspace to cheer as students’ names are called and an important milestone is marked.

Those wishing to attend the premiere showing of the ceremonies, where participants will be able to send well wishes through a chat box, must register by noon Friday, Dec. 11. The ceremonies will be available for viewing on YouTube (without the chat option) beginning Dec. 14.

“We realize that a virtual event could never replace the thrill of walking across that stage, but we want our students to know how proud we are of them,” said NIU President Dr. Lisa Freeman. “We are determined to have an in-person ceremony sometime in the future, but we didn’t want to wait any longer to honor the accomplishments of all those who have graduated during these unusual times.”

Executive Vice President and Provost Beth Ingram shared the president’s excitement at being able to recognize the achievement of graduates as soon as possible.

“I have always loved commencement,” Ingram said. “It represents the successful completion of our mission – helping students fulfill their academic dreams and sending leaders out into the community. I am excited that we were able to do something for them now, but I look forward to the day when we can all be together and shake hands for real.”

The festivities will begin at 5 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 12, with a ceremony honoring the doctoral class of 2020. All those who earned their bachelor’s and master’s degrees will be celebrated Sunday, Dec. 13, with a ceremony for May graduates at 10 a.m. and another at 2 p.m. for August and December graduates. More than 4,000 people had already registered for the events as of Tuesday.

To make those events more manageable for viewers, separate ceremonies have been created for each college, meaning that 13 ceremonies were produced in all. Each will include many of the trappings of a traditional graduation, including the playing of “Pomp and Circumstance,” the singing of the NIU Alma Mater and a roll call of all graduates. Each ceremony will also include comments from President Freeman, Provost Ingram and the dean of the college represented in the recording. Every ceremony will also include a video montage of happenings on campus over the last four years.

“A lot of people have really gone the extra mile to pull all of this together,” said Executive Assistant to the President Liz Wright, who has helped steer the process. “Everyone who has worked on this has been driven by the determination to show our graduates how proud we are of them and to make these presentations as special as possible.”

The roster of those who have pitched in has included the staff from Registration and Records, Marketing and Communications, the Office of the Provost, the Office of the President, the Graduate School, Admissions, college deans and many others.

Some of the most important and most difficult work fell to the Integrated Media Technologies team in DoIT, which created all of the ceremonies – recording comments, compiling music, editing together all of the pieces and, most importantly, working on the roll calls of students.

In larger colleges, such as Liberal Arts and Sciences, those lists approached 1,000 students for a single ceremony. The crew labored over getting pronunciations correct and trying to time the reading of names with the closed captioning on the screen – both tasks that are far easier said than done, especially with a small team of producers trying to squeeze the work in between football games, basketball games and the usual glut of end-of-semester projects.

“I am extremely proud of our team. They have been working their tails off,” said IMT Assistant Director and Producer Patrick Gorman. “Tony Del Fiacco, Kevin Meyer, Andrew Lira, Jim Barker and Len Lennergard  have put in a tremendous amount of work trying to make this as good as we possibly can. We really want to do right by the students. That is the most important thing.”

Sheri Voss, an events administrator at the Convocation Center is another individual who has been involved in the process.

After 18 years of coordinating commencement ceremonies at NIU, it is likely that Voss has seen more people graduate from NIU than anyone else in the 125-year history of the school. For her it never gets old.

“On commencement day last May, I came into the Convocation Center anyway, because I just needed to feel it,” Voss said. While the building was empty, it was still full of the memories of nervous graduates and proud family members, she said.

Voss has been involved in nearly evert aspect of the project: coordinating lists, finding readers to recite the names of students, putting letters into diploma covers and answering an endless stream of emails and phone calls from graduates and their families.

“Everyone I talk to asks me when they can come back for an actual ceremony, and I understand that. It’s disappointing that we can’t get together, but that is the world that we live in right now. Safety first.” Voss said. “And while it is not the same, I hope that all of the hard work and collaboration by so many people here on campus shows through. When students and their families watch the ceremonies online I hope they experience the same feeling of pride they would get in person.”