[YU?] offered 2020 Graduates a Virtual Reality (VR) Commencement Ceremony in response to COVID-19

Recent graduate, Miss. Oluwaeyitan “Sey” Oloyede, and Dr. Renaldo Blocker after the commencement ceremony.

“I always knew that my college graduation was going to be a moment I would always remember, but I never knew I would be experiencing this moment in virtual reality”. Oluwaseyitan “Sey” Oloyede, a graduating student from Georgia Southern University was very devastated when COVID-19 disrupted the status quo of normalcy and students like herself all over the nation were sent home to finish up the school year. Given the many adaptions schools across this country were forced to make in the wake of this COVID-19 pandemic, the canceling of graduation ceremonies was one of the tough decisions.

The “Why You?” Initiative, Inc., [YU?] Board of Directors believed it was time to rapidly introduce a more innovative way to connect with students and prepare students for their new normal.

[YU?], a nonprofit organization based in Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN was established to eradicate barriers to minority students and young professionals’ academic & professional success by effectively delivering longitudinal support via a fusion of technological and traditional mediums. Since its’ 2011 inception, [YU?] has been known for effectively delivering programming and mentorship using online platforms such as Zoom, Join.me, Google Hangouts, Skype, Webex, GotoMeeting, Microsoft Teams and etc., well before the recent trends and need for online engagement and connectivity.

The traditional method of face-to-face communication will never go away, however, the virtual space is a game changer and [YU?] has been a trendsetter in re-engineering and redefining “virtual” paradigms. For nearly 10 years, [YU?] has led with the future is now. The organization has been providing virtual tutoring, Mathematics and English laboratories, mentorship engagement, conferences, professional development webinars, board meetings, planning meetings, and much more.

Commencement ceremony view from the stage. Dr. Ayee Azah providing the commencement speech

Since its conception, [YU?] has been very successful in the use of online platforms; 88% of its high school students enroll in college and the other 12% enroll in technical schools/public service academies. 81% of undergraduate students enroll in a graduate program and the other 19% secure full-time career positions. 95% of its graduate students secure full time career positions and the other 5% continue more academic training.

There are a number of contributing factors, which includes their longitudinal support model designed to meet the individual needs of the students and maximize their outcomes.  Dr. Renaldo Blocker, a co-founder, stated that “[YU?] was developed to create a “system of support” around the student no matter where the student resides, which is why the online engagement component was essential to the organization’s support system.”

No stranger to implementing cutting-edge technology, [YU?] quickly employed virtual reality (VR) by partnering with LearnBrite, Inc. and CEO, Danny Stefanic. The [YU?] Board of Directors wanted to provide the graduating class an unforgettable experience. Dr. Blocker piloted the virtual reality platform with 13 of his direct mentees. The students (i.e. high school, college and graduate students) truly enjoyed the new way of engagement. One mentee and doctoral candidate, Emmanuel Tetteh, mentioned that “the virtual reality environment—I think is great especially in this era of social distancing. I was actually fascinated about how the screens on the wall were linked to actual helpful materials online.”

Prior to the VR graduation, the organization mailed Smartphone VR Headsets to the students to use during the commencement ceremony. The intent was to replicate a commencement ceremony and for students to feel immersed in a physical environment instead of viewing their graduation celebration on a screen. Students were extremely excited and had fun creating their avatar for the occasion. All graduates wore graduation caps during the ceremony.

The students invited family, friends, and others to their VR graduation. The commencement ceremony was held in a virtual reality auditorium on June 10, 2020 at 5:30PM CST and was similar in nature to a physical graduation ceremony. You could hear Sir Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance Marches ring throughout the virtual auditorium as the students began their processional march down the staircase and sat in the front row of the auditorium seating section. On the stage sat a few [YU?] Board Members, special guests and key presenters for the ceremony. The ceremony included a commencement speaker, Dr. Ayeetin Azah, a Lieutenant in the United State Navy, a Flight Surgeon and a [YU?] Mentor. Mr. Tizon Matthews, an undergraduate mentee, sung the historic African American National Anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by James Weldon Johnson. Miss. Yusra Yusuf, an undergraduate mentee, performed a thought provoking spoken word piece to honor the graduates. The graduation ended with the presentation of candidates by Miss Cassandra Sheppard, Dr. Dorian Davis and Dr. Renaldo Blocker. The students’ names were called and each student walked across the stage, as their family, friends and fellow students clapped and cheered.

Miss Oloyede also expressed, “I’m so very grateful of [YU?], despite COVID-19 taking away my actual graduation, they made it possible for me to experience the commencement ceremony via VR. I’m so grateful for this opportunity.”

[YU?] is changing what it means to engage students online. [YU?] has always been the pioneers in online engagement with students, mentors, volunteers, staff and board members. The organization currently has students in 17 different states. With LearnBrite’s sponsorship, [YU?] is hastily moving toward the “next level” of utilizing and reimagining the virtual space impact on mentorship and programming. For [YU?], the future is already here.

Learn more about the The “Why You?” Initiative, Inc. contact Dr. Dorian Davis, Chair of the Board.

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