Drake Martin doesn’t need to worry about waking up early for his 8:30 a.m. graduation today, May 8, from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
Instead of walking across the stage at Thompson-Boling Arena, he can watch from the comfort of his bed if he chooses.
While the university still hopes to honor about 4,625 students in person when it is safe, this week it is holding online celebrations with slideshows of the graduates in each college, from Thursday through Saturday, May 7-9.
Instead of the breakfast Martin originally planned for today with friends, he’ll use the Zoom online platform to connect with classmates who returned to homes across the country when the campus closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic and classes moved online.
An afternoon gathering at his apartment for his parents, sister and grandparents will be replaced with a mock ceremony at his mother’s Blount County home tonight.
They’ll fast-forward to the slide with his photo and accomplishments in the online show, and Mom will hand him a rolled up piece of paper, since the diploma will arrive by mail later.
With the uncertainty about how plans would unfold this spring, he delayed ordering anything for the UT ceremony. So tonight he’ll don the same cap and gown he wore as a commencement speaker at Maryville High School in 2016.
Martin has maintained his sense of humor amid the pandemic, and he and his family are like thousands of others marking graduations this year as best they can while traditions are on hold.
Uncertainty in the final semester as he earned a bachelor’s degree in communications was stressful, Martin admitted.
His Communication Studies Senior Capstone class included several team projects that required group meetings, and UT’s move to distance learning “threw a wrench in a lot of plans my teachers had,” he said.
“The teachers at UT were fantastic in their response,” Martin said. In the end, “everything went off without a hitch.”
The current students also received support from alumni, such as Peyton Manning dropping into an online session of that capstone class to offer encouragement. Manning earned his degree in communications from UT in 1997.
Alumni, faculty and others have joined in a “20 for ‘20” initiative (https://bit.ly/UT20for20), posting messages of congratulations and advice in 20 words — more or less — for the Class of 2020.
“They know how gratifying it is to walk across the stage,” Martin said, and have shown a lot of love to those missing the experience this week.
Martin was able to work remotely on his internship in the public relations office of UT’s alumni center, including researching new programs and writing a guide for future interns.
He also continued working at Pope’s Plant Farm, where he started with a summer job while in high school nearly eight years ago, an experience that led to his earning a minor in plant science.
He gained real-world experience in business communications during COVID-19, as Martin said he worked on a task force that dealt with the necessary business changes and its communications with customers and vendors.
With a couple of job offers already on the table before today’s ceremony, Martin is in a much better position than many UT classmates who saw internships and job offers revoked in the economic wake of COVID-19 and this spring’s business shutdowns.