En español | In mid-April, my daughter, Chloe, a senior at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, finished her final college class by logging in on a laptop from her dorm room. A few days later, her school canceled her May graduation ceremony. She is not alone. Similar stories quickly became the lament of high school and college seniors everywhere as a disappointing wave of abrupt school closures, missed proms and annulled graduations induced by the COVID-19 outbreak crashed into our collective celebratory plans.
But if the worst of times brings out the best in people, then Americans are living up to the challenge. Across the country, caring strangers, proud families and enterprising companies are turning this unique moment into an opportunity to say “hip, hip hooray” to the class of 2020. Here, five of our favorites, which may give you your own ideas for celebrating this year's grads.
Adopt a graduate
Raynee Leslie Branch of Bonney Lake, Washington, used social media for the greater good in April by creating a Facebook page called “National Adopt A 2020 Senior Project” and asked Americans to show some love for high school seniors.
"I came across teens who felt this [coronavirus] somehow took away from their accomplishment, but it's not true, and I wanted to do something to show that they are valued,” Branch says.
As of early May, more than 9,200 teens, whose parents posted their pictures and bios, had been adopted by families across the country who have sent cards and care packages. One recipient, Jonathon Jordan, a graduate of the Baylor School, a private coeducational prep school in Chattanooga, Tennessee, received a bag filled with some of his favorite snacks and candy and a $10 Chick-fil-A gift card from a nearby family. The care package even included a bouquet of flowers for his mother, Sandi.
"It makes my heart smile knowing that strangers are coming together from all over the country to celebrate this class,” says the proud mom.
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Plan a drive-by grad parade
Jordan Kriseman of St. Petersburg, Florida, was on track to receive her bachelor of arts diploma at a ceremony May 2 at the University of Florida in Gainesville. But in mid-March, the school instructed students to leave campus and return home over concerns about the spread of the coronavirus. Not wanting to let her graduation pass uncelebrated, Jordan's parents, Kerry and Rick Kriseman, hired a company to decorate the lawn and house with signs and other decor, and invited friends and family to cruise by their home between noon and 2 p.m. May 2 to wave, honk and do the university's signature Gator Chomp for the grad. Jordan watched the parade of about 24 cars and one cyclist from her front porch in a cap and gown her parents borrowed from family friends.
"I was completely surprised by the yard and house decorations, and the parade of cars,” Jordan says. “It was actually really cool because people who normally wouldn't have been in Gainesville [for the graduation] were able to celebrate with us. I am really grateful to my parents for organizing it."
Schedule a porch portrait
Professional photographer and college professor Jane Gibson of Belton, Texas, has been snapping photos of Belton High School students since her daughter, Gracie, now 27, attended. When they learned students would be missing prom and graduation this year, the duo had a light-bulb moment: a Prom Portrait Pass-By.
Gibson posted an ad on Facebook asking interested graduating seniors to dress to impress, and texted families that responded with an approximate drive-by time on April 25. Gibson and her daughter took 12 portraits that day, including one of a suited-up and smiling Jonathan Nieves, whose mom spent the morning plastering the front of the house with decorations; and of Cameron Diaz, who donned her white prom dress and posed with her family on their red pickup truck.
"It was important to show our seniors that circumstances don't diminish our love, and that more people than they know are proud of them,” Gibson says. “That's what we can give our seniors this year, that lesson in love."
Gibson delivered a 4-by-6 print to each family for free.
In Arlington, Virginia, portrait photographer Matt Mendelsohn has been working pro bono to photograph seniors at Yorktown High School, where his daughter is a junior, aiming to capture all 500 by the date they would have worn their caps and gowns in June. Wearing a mask and gloves and using long lenses while staying at a proper social distance, Mendelsohn asks each student what makes them them. The resulting black-and-white portraits are revealing; sports equipment, cheerleading jumps and musical instruments help tell their stories.
Invite an award-winning chef to a graduation dinner
Celebration dinners take a novel twist with Avital Tours, a San Francisco-based food-tour company that has taken its culinary expertise to Zoom by offering 90-minute “chefinars,” led by professional chefs, for birthday and graduation events. All the guests can call in from where they live, and the cost is $50 per household login. In real time, a chef leads everyone through making a signature dish, whose ingredients can be ordered and shipped ahead for $85 per household of four people, or you can purchase them on your own. Each session is also customizable, such as adding a slideshow, for $25, with pictures of the guest of honor. While chefs are subject to availability, James Beard Award semifinalist Jonah Miller of Huertas in New York City has guided guests in making Spanish tortilla, and Michelin-star chef Mark Dommen of One Market in San Francisco has showcased his classic risotto.
"Our mission has always been to deepen human connection through storytelling and food. These special virtual experiences allow families to connect with one another, even from afar,” says Unger Avital, the company's founder.
Host a prom in your living room
When the pandemic forced the cancellation of the prom for Jennie Sharda's daughter, Rebecca Sharda, a senior at Grace Christian School in Raleigh, North Carolina, Jennie asked Rebecca's three sisters to turn the senior's disappointment around.
Sharda rallied the girls to plan an at-home prom, complete with Rebecca's favorite foods for dinner and dessert, flowers in Grace Christian's school colors (blue hydrangeas and orange gerbera daisies) and fancy dresses from proms past pulled from the closet. Even Jennie and her husband, Tom, dressed for the occasion, and the entire family danced the night away in the living room to their favorite songs.
"I was sad that I couldn't dance in a special prom dress with the people I have been in school with since freshman year,” Rebecca says. “But the night I spent with my family, dancing to fun music and eating macaroons, will forever be treasured because they are the people that I know will be in my life no matter what."