US finds creative ways to mark graduations in virus lockdown

Washington (AFP) –


A speech by Barack Obama, a photo finish at Daytona, or a wild, livestreamed party in the family living room: Americans are dreaming up creative ways to celebrate their graduates, deprived of traditional diploma ceremonies by the coronavirus pandemic.

High school and university graduation ceremonies are much-anticipated rites of passage in the United States, almost "as important as weddings or births," says 29-year-old Trent Johnson.

So when, after four years of medical school, he received an email telling him that his university, Ohio State, was cancelling the ceremony because of the pandemic, he was overwhelmed.

"I was so kind of hurt, I went lying on my bed and I cried," Johnson, the first in his family to earn a university degree, told AFP.

Johnson's mother promised his family would do "our best to make it as special as possible," he said.

They hung two red tablecloths from the wall, strung up golden balloons spelling out "2020", and put the music on at their home in Orlando, Florida.

A friend livestreamed the festivities on multiple platforms, so that family and friends could watch as he appeared in the room dressed in his cap and gown.

It felt real, Johnson said -- and suddenly the moment overwhelmed him again. "I was so happy, when I saw how proud my mom and dad were, that's where I lost it."

- 'Michelle and I are excited' -

The moment -- followed by two hours of feverish dancing, is caught on the video that the young man, who begins a residency in internal medicine in June at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, posted online.

Since that weekend, it has been retweeted nearly half a million times, which delighted the new graduate.

"I hope this video inspires other graduates to celebrate their accomplishments. Even if it is from their parent's living room. This ending does not negate our journey," Johnson said.

It is a sentiment shared by former US President Barack Obama.

He has just announced that he and his wife will give a speech for the "class of 2020" on June 6 at a virtual ceremony on YouTube, which will also be attended by singer Lady Gaga and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai.

"I've always loved joining commencements –– the culmination of years of hard work and sacrifice," he tweeted.

"Even if we can't get together in person this year, Michelle and I are excited to celebrate the nationwide Class of 2020 and recognize this milestone with you and your loved ones."

Oprah Winfrey, champion gymnast Simone Biles and singer Miley Cyrus will do the same on Facebook and Instagram on May 15.

And the next day, the major television channels ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC will interrupt their programs to pay tribute to the 3.7 million new graduates.

- Finish line -

But some are taking the idea of crossing the finish line a little more literally.

In Florida, newly-minted high school graduates will drive across the famed Daytona Speedway's finish line in their family cars on May 31 to mark the passage.

In the same vein, the Texas Motor Speedway is hosting a "drive-in" graduation ceremony later this month.

The Fort Worth speedway's president and general manager, Eddie Gossage, said he was "honored" to support the graduates of the area's 23 high schools.

"A high school graduation ceremony is such an important achievement and lifelong memory for students as well as their families and friends," he said.

Across the United States, graduates are cheered on as they parade through neighborhoods in lines of honking vehicles by parents and teachers waving balloons, pom-poms and pennants.

Signs have begun to sprout on lawns and entryways emblazoned with pictures of the new graduates, and always the same message: "Congratulations."