Ask any high school or college senior how they’re feeling lately and rather than lean on the oft-quoted words by Charles Dickens from their AP Literature classes about the best and worst of times, their mumbled answers which rhyme with grad are closer to this year’s version of Dr. Seuss’s Oh, The Places You’ll Go!
Getting to graduate? Rad! Having to quarantine and social distance? Sad! Relief at being done? Glad! Not getting to hang with friends? Mad!
And who can blame them in this dual season of hope and despair? If you’re a soon-to-be graduate or parent, you are feeling the full gamut of emotions. Some may see this as a lesser celebration, as no big deal. But for seniors the plethora of capstone traditions that accompany the final days of school have all but disappeared, never to be re-created in quite the same way.
While we may not be able to replace the anticipated graduation rituals, perhaps we can offer that extra bit of celebration your grad festivities need.
20 graduation celebration ideas
- DIY CEREMONY
If ever there was a year to attempt to pull off your own backyard or public park ceremony, this is it. You can have loved ones present while still observing adequate social distancing.
Construct your own makeshift arbor backdrop, stage, or bridge, or better yet, create a stepping or milestones walk with laminated photos from birth to graduation on garden stakes or brightly painted rocks with the years and key obstacles, achievements and awards (learned to walk, broke
leg, earned Eagle Scout designation, etc.).
Intermix these important moments with congratulatory messages from loved ones so that along the walk towards the stage, the graduate has a sense of traveling through time.
Consider co-hosting with the graduate’s closest few friends. Have each family observe social distancing by spacing the tables appropriately. Then, invite the students to participate by taking turns introducing one another with complimentary words, funny stories, and words of pride. You can also opt to co-design a ceremony program with a page dedicated to each graduate.
You might choose to invite family members to deliver the opening or closing remarks, share inspiring readings, or words of blessing. Plan to present each of the graduates with a graduation token or stole (signed by their family members or adorned with grad-themed patches).
And lastly, consider how you might even defer this moment until later in the summer. I chose to throw mid-August bon voyage gatherings for my son and daughter in the penultimate weeks before they were leaving for college. One was a taco-themed buffet bash at community hall and the other was a barbecue picnic in a local public park. In both cases, they appreciated being able to mark the moment with their friends months later, after much of the graduation hoopla had dissipated.
2. PAY TRIBUTE
When my son, now 23, graduated from high-school, I started a Wit & Wisdom tribute book tradition as a way for him to reflect upon all the mentors in his life who had a hand in shaping his journey. Equal parts photo book and edited anthology of words from loved ones, the book quickly became a cherished item and graduation memento.
Curating messages and photos in book form is a colossal amount of work but the rewards are huge. After the success of his first book, I decided to replicate the project for his college graduation two years ago. The project has since turned into a multi-volume, lifelong legacy project. Every handful of years, he’ll get a new one.
If the thought of this seems daunting, feel free to make it scrappy. Friends and family can email sentiments for you to cut and paste with assorted photos into a scrapbook.
There are countless online photo books, poster collage, and app-based options, from Snapfish to Mixbook. I chose Bookemon because my project was mostly text but whatever you choose, consider how you might get other family members to help share the workload, whether that’s gathering the photos, compiling the written tributes, or nudging friends and family with deadline reminder emails.
3. CAP & GOWN PARADE
This option brings new meaning to how it takes a village to praise a child. You’ve likely seen many examples in the media this spring, of how people have been holding drive-by street parades to celebrate chosen honorees with honking, signs, and shouted words of congratulations.
Depending on the logistics and location of your school, you might want to start a grassroots parade effort amongst fellow graduates, parents, and graduation committee members. Choose a parade route, such as a local street at a designated time, the wall of the school, or the school stadium, and then line it with congratulatory signs from fellow graduates and their families.
This can be a drive-by or a walking parade, depending on the size of the graduating class. The point of this parade is to offer graduates the opportunity to experience a ceremonious walk.
4. COLLABORATIVE PLAYLIST
Making a playlist is a simple activity but it’s a perfect project for this year’s graduates. Have classmates choose a song and provide a comment about why that song holds meaning, memories, or in the case of pandemic-themed songs, mirth. It can live on as a poignant reminder of Spring 2020.
5. CAPS OFF!
What student doesn’t envision being able to throw their grad cap in the air amongst their cohort all doing the same? This activity is best suited for smaller graduation classes or groups of friends and is ideal for students whose schools will not be offering a deferred ceremony in the fall.
Plan a late-summer park or football field gathering, use colorful markers to spread everyone off at far distance from one another, place someone in the center of the large circle who would be willing to play rallying music and do the caps off countdown (with a word of reminder to be cautious when retrieving the tossed cap.)
6. GRADS ON FILM
As an addition or variation to the music playlist idea, students might want to choose a class filmmaker to compile a video of clips. These could range from simulated grad walks in the style of Monty Python silliness or having everyone share a few words or sing a line of a song. Families can take on this challenge, too, by compiling a photo or video tribute for their graduate. It’s a big job sorting and digitizing all those old boxes of family photos but it’s a worthy one. An old-fashioned trifold board photo collage makes a lovely visual backdrop in photos or at a family graduation celebration.
7. VIRTUAL BONFIRE
Schedule an evening date on or near the first day of summer, June 20th, and have everyone show off the burning of school papers in their own backyard or at a community park firepit. This is a great opportunity to ritualize the release of things they feel sad about. Students (and family members) would write these down on small pieces of wood like kindling or popsicle sticks. As a gesture of reclamation, everyone can follow this by writing wishes for the future on slips of paper attached to a pinecone to be burned as a final gesture.
Enacting this kind of ritual of release (sorrow) and renewal (hopes and dreams) is a purifying way to let go of any unspoken sentiments and lingering energy. Culminate this graduation rite by livestreaming the summer solstice celebration at Stonehenge, which is sure to be an epic virtual viewing experience.
8. 2020 VISIONARIES (DIGITAL YEARBOOK)
This one is the perfect project for the senior class yearbook editor to tackle and curate. Everyone submits a photo that defines their senior year shelter at home activities (baking muffins, Zoom or gaming with friends, napping, shooting baskets, sewing masks), together with some reflective thoughts, insights, joys, sorrows, or gratitude sentiments. The class graphic designer(s) compiles these and voila!, a special edition yearbook is born. Should you decided to give this a go, do remember to include an In Memoriam page that honors teachers, staff, and loved ones of graduates who may have died, because these tributes of loss and sorrow are testament to the collective grief the world is experiencing.
9. HOMECOMING 2020
If your school has a fall homecoming weekend or deferred ceremony, make every effort to attend it. Alternatively, you might want to gather your friends and set a date for a reunion weekend (even if that’s as late as Thanksgiving or New Year’s Eve) so you can take those photos together. Keep in mind that it’s never too late to go back and reconsecrate a meaningful moment, no matter that it might not look or feel the same. As long as there’s a ceremonious and intentional element to it, there’s poignancy and much-needed catharses.
10. TIME CAPSULE
The year 2020 has become so indelible and defining, that it lends itself to creating a time capsule of artifacts. These could include a curation of photos, a mini scrapbook of news headlines, tribute artwork, a partial roll of toilet paper with words written upon it, a homemade face mask, Polaroid images, key stories, and symbols of loss and grief. Don’t forget to include printed copies or a flash drive compilation of some of your favorite celebrity commencement tributes.
11. AT-HOME PROM
Stories abound of graduates organizing virtual dance parties and at-home prom moments. If you are TikTok-inclined, challenge your friends or your family to get their moves on and enjoy some moments of lightheartedness. And if nothing else, it will be an excuse to change out of sweat pants, get dressed up, make a homemade corsage, and stage a photo shoot.
12. POSTER CHILD
Does your school have a tradition of compiling senior superlatives for the yearbook (the student most likely to…)? Why not invite the graduating class to donate to a project fund, submit complimentary notes of kindness and humor via Google docs (or an anonymous survey site), and rally a team of class curators to gather the responses on hand-crafted poster boards?
13. FOUR THINGS
No matter the life stage, it’s good to lend pause and reflect upon our journey from then to now. Name and claim four things about your high school or college experience – something you’ll miss; something you’re gladly leaving behind; a skill, way of being, or object you look forward to bringing with you into your future; and something you hope to cultivate in this next phase. Choose a symbol to pair with these four things and display it as a reminder of this moment in time
14. LAUREL CEREMONY
Note to parents: put your origami skills to work by adorning your graduate with a handmade money lei or floral bouquet made with paper bills. If a small gathering of you are crafting a more intimate ceremony with a group of graduates, consider making custom-crafted laurel wreaths, leis or bracelets using nature’s greenery, craft beads, ribbons, and flowers in the school colors.
Note to grads: your friends will love you forever if you take the time to make them a handcrafted wreath or lei. Add forty origami-folded dollar bills (twenty plus twenty) and they will love you even more!
15. DECORATE YOUR PAD
Make it a banner year for being true to your school while at home, especially if you are home from a college that is miles away. Decorate your doorway, porch or yard with signage, banners, streamers, and messages of congratulations. Splurge on the flowers, get dressed up in your cap, gown or college wear, and strike a pose – you’ve earned it!
16. MAKE IT PINTERESTING
Pinterest and YouTube are filled with all kinds of inspiring projects to help you say grad rite…the ceremonious way. It’s a rabbit hole though – don’t say I didn’t warn you.
17. TINY BOOK SWAP
One fun way to end the school year is to treat your graduate to a handmade tiny book or have the graduates participate in a book swap with fellow graduates as a ritual gift exchange. Check out this instructional video by the Tiny Book Show curators at The Creativity Caravan.
Make it an outbreak theme (“How to Pass Time in a Pandemic…”), humorous, or instructional, like a How-To book about surviving senior year, and then show and tell your book wares ceremoniously with a virtual gallery showing.
18. NOTEWORTHY WISHES
There are countless ways to ritualize graduation well-wishing. Make a 2020 banner (with cloth or paper pennants), decorated with photos and adorned with congratulatory tags from friends and family. Or get a small decorative suitcase or wooden pail and have everyone mail notes to the graduate.
You might even invite your people to submit words of tribute, advice, and pride on brightly colored sticky notes and stick those to a poster board or paste them in an accordion gift book. Lastly, select a tree in the back yard for a PoeTREE project, by stringing printed and laminated wisdom poems selected by loved ones as words of inspiration for the graduate.
19. MEMORY LANE
A fabulous and fun way to celebrate the graduate(s) is to organize a self-directed scavenger hunt that honors all their favorite places and hangouts that hold memories and meaning. Bonus points if you craft your clues in rhyme scheme! For high school graduates moving away from home, this can be particularly meaningful. Splurge on an instant camera and have them take a selfie at each locale. Treat them to a gift card reward once they’ve completed all their station stops. The photos will then make the perfect dorm room banner décor and reminder of home.
20. FLORAL GARDEN
For high school students wanting to participate in a collaborative project aimed at beautifying the school grounds this spring, offer to start a legacy flower garden at the school.
This project needs a few green thumbs to do the initial landscaping and carve the 2020 numeric design in the soil. Once that’s done, students and families could take turns visiting the school, planting a flower, and donating to a legacy or scholarship fund for future graduates.
Just as this graduation year will be one for the history books, so too will our graduates be remembered for their tenacity, grace, and willingness to make the best of these worst of times.
And while 2020 will not offer the same pomp and circumstance of previous grad seasons, this year’s class of graduates will forever be remembered as the generation who helped pioneer a 2020 vision that is all about finding new ways to mark moments meaningfully.
More to Read:
Great Graduation Gift List for 2020 Grads
Graduation Gifts for Your Teen’s Friends
Danna Schmidt is at work on a lost + found memoir about family and belonging. Her writing has been featured in Crafting Love: Sharing Our Hearts through the Work of Our Hands by Maggie Oman Shannon and in Seattle Bride magazine. You can read more of her musings here.