On May 24, an off day for the Washington Nationals, Georgetown will take over the ballpark on South Capitol Street SE as a crowd of Hoyas in caps and gowns and a limited number of guests gather for ceremonies normally held on the campus in Northwest Washington.
Georgetown President John J. DeGioia, announcing the news Thursday, wrote that he wanted to “express my deep appreciation to the Nationals” and D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) for working quickly with the university on the plan. “This is a special opportunity for us to celebrate the Class of 2021,” he wrote.
There will be two sets of graduation exercises at the park that day, Georgetown said: one in the morning for those who earned bachelor’s degrees and one in the afternoon for those who earned graduate and professional degrees. Each graduate will be allowed two guests. Those who cannot attend will be able to follow along through a streamed video.
This school year has been unpredictable from the start, with viral infections afflicting schools across the country and students taking classes through video links and other online tools. Like many colleges and universities, Georgetown has relied heavily on remote instruction throughout the school year and sharply limited the presence of students on campus.
Finding a way to gather in May for the pomp and circumstance of graduation ceremonies proved yet another challenge.
Last month, DeGioia’s first commencement pitch drew boos from many students and families. He announced in a March 23 email to the Georgetown community that the universitywide commencement, and many related events, would be virtual. A few “in-person activities,” he wrote, would be planned for graduating students only.
“I recognize that this is not the commencement experience that our students envisioned when they first arrived at Georgetown,” DeGioia wrote at the time. “I share your disappointment in not being able to gather in person and celebrate our students’ accomplishments alongside family and friends.” He said the Classes of 2020 and 2021 would be invited to return to Georgetown for an in-person celebration in 2022.
Then the D.C. government eased restrictions on outdoor gatherings. On April 13, DeGioia wrote in an update for students that the university would revise its plans in response to the new guidance from Bowser.
There was no mention in that update of Nationals Park, and it was not immediately clear when the ballpark entered into the discussions. The park seats a little more than 41,000, but for now only about 10,000 are allowed at Nationals games under D.C. government orders.
Georgetown said D.C. officials approved its revised commencement plan on Thursday. The university is also developing a fallback plan in case Nationals Park becomes unavailable for public health or other reasons.
Georgetown is not the only university in Washington to bump its commencement to a professional sports venue. Catholic University plans to hold its graduation exercises on May 15 at FedEx Field in Prince George’s County, Md., where the Washington Football Team plays.
Commencement is a highly complex undertaking at most schools, typically planned many months in advance. It’s not just about speeches and processions. The staging and choreography, the ticketing of guests, the timing, and fine points of related ceremonies for various academic units and sub-units are all carefully scripted.
Georgetown is no exception. To pull off a mass commencement in two stages at a new crosstown location with barely one month of advance notice, and to make it all accessible through video for a remote audience, will be a major league logistical feat.
The Jesuit university, founded in 1789, had about 19,600 students in fall 2019, including 7,500 undergraduates.
Last year, like most colleges and universities, Georgetown was forced to scrap in-person graduation ceremonies for the Class of 2020 as the coronavirus crisis hammered the nation’s health and education systems and the economy. Nevertheless, federal data shows that Georgetown awarded 1,796 bachelor’s degrees in the 2019-2020 school year, as well as 4,072 master’s degrees and 1,038 doctorates.