8 Fantastic Ways to Celebrate 2020's Graduates

Caps, gowns, Pomp and Circumstance—graduation is a big deal! But 2020 has forced us to approach this time-honored tradition differently. Here's how to get creative with your grad's celebration.

Cheryl Butler
7-minute read
Episode #581

Graduation ceremonies are one of the most special rites of passage. While milestones like kindergarten and elementary school advancement are certainly significant, high school and college students define "senior" in a much different way. As a parent, I bet you can still remember the excitement of finally reaching the end of your educational journey and the beginning of the next phase—your adult life.

And yet, this year, social distancing means many seniors won't don a cap and gown and walk solemnly down an aisle to the refrains of Pomp and Circumstance while their proud families look on. Parents are challenged to find alternatives to help their remarkable seniors feel special. Here's a collection of creative ideas that can help you celebrate your graduate's terrific accomplishments with family and friends near and far—because marking this pivotal achievement is a success in its own right.

1. Stop and reflect—process all your emotions

In 2008, J.K. Rowling delivered the Harvard commencement address, defending the importance of perseverance and imagination.

We do not need magic to change the world. We carry all the power we need inside ourselves already. We have the power to imagine better.

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter series author

This inspiring message by Rowling is a beautiful reminder for all of this year's graduates that despite their current circumstances, they have the potential to become anything they want to be—as long as they have the proper mindset.

When we grasp any notable occasion, we face a myriad of deep emotions. Graduation goes hand-in-hand with feelings of great pride, success, and accomplishment. (Disappointment isn't usually linked with diplomas!) Dr. Jade Wu, QDT’s Savvy Psychologist, has some insightful and heartfelt advice for students graduating during this turbulent year:

Allow yourself (whether you're a grad or parent) to feel all of the emotions, positive and negative. It's ok to feel both disappointment and pride. Don't try to talk yourself out of the difficult emotions, and instead, acknowledge them and let them pass through you at their own pace.

Write about it. Document the moment, whether you've got profound thoughts about this rite of passage, or even just silly or ordinary observations. You can look back on your notes as an affirmation that, yes, this did happen. I have crossed from before to now.  

Dr. Jade Wu, Ph.D.

The gift of a diary or journal before graduation will help the graduate in your life to keep track of all his feelings. This might include the special acts of kindness happening for his graduating class, and anything else noteworthy that he wants to record while things are fresh in his mind. Years from now, this journal could be valuable when he wants to reflect on this unbelievable time in his life.

2. Celebrate big

Good times call for grand celebrations! Graduation is a time to let loose and enjoy the moment! Embrace this glorious time in your graduate’s life and bring on the party!

Pro tip from Dr. Jade Wu:   

Don't skimp on the celebrations. Give graduation the due ceremony it deserves. Go all out with flowers, balloons, taking pictures, and champagne! If your grad can get regalia, dress him or her to the nines. This will give the occasion the weight it deserves and help your grad to feel the pride they've earned.

How can you celebrate your grad?  Here are some fun ways to do it up big!

Tune in to Youtube's Dear Class of 2020 event

On June 6th, YouTube Originals will air Dear Class of 2020, a virtual commencement featuring some seriously big names from President Obama to Beyonce and Lady Gaga. Of course, it's not quite the same as walking across the stage and getting your diploma, but it'll sure be a whole lot of fun. Woot Woot!

Host a virtual ceremony

While it might not have the same impact as in-person graduation, consider holding a virtual ceremony on graduation day. One of the most significant advantages of a virtual graduation event is the ability to bring in speakers who will rock your graduate’s world! Recruit noteworthy alumni, parents, friends, and even community leaders to complete an epic speaker line-up to make students feel inspired about their next chapter. Here are a few ideas.

  • Set up a themed virtual background for your cyber party. Create a visually stunning space for your grad at home. Check out these cool backgrounds you can download for free.
  • Dress for the occasion. It's vital to make this event special for your graduate. You may have to move the celebration to an online event, but that doesn't mean you have to show up in your tattered sweatpants. Asking guests to get gussied up for the occasion will make the virtual party feel more formal. Don’t forget your honoree’s cap and gown!
  • Class of 2020 graduate photos and bios. Give seniors the recognition they deserve! Create an online tribute for your senior (or her class). Take advantage of her senior portrait and all the photos your child has accumulated through the years during sports, club activities, or just hanging out with friends. Write a bio (make it serious, humorous, corny—whatever reflects your child’s personality to accompany the montage of photos. Canva offers free templates to help you. Think of it as a “gone live” yearbook!
  • Thank guests for attending your virtual graduation with a Party Box. Before your event, send guests sealed snacks to enjoy, graduation party props (easily accessible at the Dollar Store or craft stores), a graduation announcement, and a picture of your grad. Be sure to save a few for your senior so he can indulge right after his online ceremony.

3. Create a space for online wishes

Show your senior the love with notes of virtual encouragement. A thoughtful way to create a sense of community is to provide open avenues of communication. Many schools use a tool called Padlet, which allows website visitors to write notes to one another on a public board. 

The content can easily be embedded on any website and provides a fantastic platform to write heart-warming messages of cheer and inspiration.

4. Integrate virtual games

Board games have always been a household staple in our family. From Go Fish to Monopoly marathons, games have a way of connecting different age groups and generations. Celebrate your graduate by hosting a cyber game night. It’s easier than you think, especially for today’s tech-savvy kids.

Houseparty is a popular app you can use to make a virtual game night happen. This social networking app allows up to eight people to video chat at once. Users can have infinite rooms and easily float between them. They also receive a notification when friends open the app so they can join friends. This YouTube tutorial gives a great explanation of how easy it is to use Houseparty.

The internet offers lots of fun ideas and games to make your virtual game night a blast. I found The Oprah Magazine’s article, How to Host a Truly Fun Virtual Game Night With Friends Over Video, fun and helpful. You’ll find a complete variety of games, including download links featuring my fam’s favorite—Jackbox Party Pack. Perfect for graduation!

5. Build your graduate a stage

One of the most exciting parts of graduation (for students and their families) is walking the stage to receive their diploma. I get goosebumps just thinking about it! Students devote four (or more) years preparing for this extraordinary milestone. This year, although they’ll receive those hard-earned degrees and diplomas, that rite of passage is sadly not part of their journey.

That wasn’t the case for a college senior in Memphis, Tennessee, Gabrielle Pearce. She was distraught and in tears for an entire week when she learned graduation at Louisiana's Xavier University was canceled. It pained her father to see her so upset, so he decided to bring the stage to her so she could experience the thrill of that dramatic walk to receive her degree.

Building a full-on stage may seem a bit over the top for some, but if you have handy friends or neighbors that would love a project, this idea could wor! Check out this video of Gabrielle’s graduation and see the infamous stage her father lovingly created.

Now, let's look at a few ways communities have been celebrating their seniors. You may find some inspiration in these exciting and heartwarming programs.

6. Adopt a senior

Many people around the country have jumped at the chance to celebrate their high school seniors even if they don't have a senior themselves. My community is one of the thousands who have rallied around their local high school by adopting a senior with personalized care packages, cards, gift cards, favorite snacks, and other good-vibe treats as a sign of support.

One of our high schools sent their seniors on a scavenger hunt to get their gift baskets. The PTO tied 175 individual ribbons with each senior’s name. The ribbon held a special message for each one, which related to something he/she was interested in or had contributed to during high school. The ribbon also left a clue leading them to their gifts. Talk about lifting their spirits!

Check out your local news sources for information on how you can brighten a high school senior’s graduation journey.

7. Hand deliver diplomas, caps, and gowns

Several communities are following the lead from Southern New Hampshire University, which has hand-delivered degrees to graduates across the country for years now. This inspired idea could add a magical touch for high school seniors in local districts. Deliver diplomas to students before the online ceremony, along with yearbooks, yard signs, banners, and other celebratory items that will help mark this significant occasion.

Don’t forget another essential element—caps, and gowns! Allow seniors to order their cap and gowns still, and encourage them to decorate them, and wear them for your alternative celebrations,  and post them on social media.


8. Assemble a drive-in graduation

I’m a sentimental sap. I’ve had six of my eight kids graduate from high school, and some from college, so this time of year always tugs at my heartstrings. I’ve been scouring the internet and other resources to find inspiring ideas on how this year’s graduations can have just as much meaning as any in year’s past. When I read about Clinton High School’s plans in Clinton, Arkansas, I thought it was brilliant!

The school held a private graduation ceremony for every senior. Graduates dressed in a cap and gown and walked the stage, with just their immediate family present.

The article on Grown and Flown explained how the school achieved this clever graduation while adhering to social distancing protocol:

  • The graduate’s name was called, and they walked across the stage to receive their diploma
  • The school hired a production company to capture video of each graduation
  • The individual graduations were pieced together into a full graduation film
  • The film was shown at a drive-in theater with families gathered in their cars to view it.

Each family also received a copy of the film. You can see it all come to life here in this local news report.

2020 is no ordinary year, and that means graduations won't be ordinary, either. But despite nothing being "normal" right now, with the incredible outpouring of creative ideas from parents, school districts, and even entire communities, seniors across the country will still experience meaningful rituals they'll never forget.

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Cheryl Butler Project Parenthood

Cheryl L. Butler was the host of the Mighty Mommy podcast for nine years from 2012 to 2021. She is the mother of eight children. Her experiences with infertility, adoption, seven pregnancies, and raising children with developmental delays have helped her become a resource on the joys and challenges of parenting. You can reach her by email.