How do you celebrate graduation during pandemic? Just roll with it.

May 16, 2020
M.D./Ph.D. student Robert Cameron cheers
Robert Cameron celebrates graduating from the Medical Scientist Training Program at MUSC. Photos by Sarah Pack

Instead of walking across a stage to receive his diploma, Robert Cameron rolled up in an SUV. But the Medical Scientist Training Program graduate made the most of it, standing up with his arms raised through the sunroof as he arrived in the parking lot of the Wellness Center at the Medical University of South Carolina to pick up his diploma in a drive-through ceremony. 

“We’re so glad that y’all were able to do this. It meant the world to us,” Cameron said afterward.

The coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of MUSC’s traditional commencement ceremony, but it couldn’t keep people from celebrating the achievements of students from MUSC’s six colleges: Dental Medicine, Graduate Studies, Health Professions, Medicine, Nursing and Pharmacy.

College of Nursing graduate Brittney Parason 
Brittney Parsons has a van full of enthusiastic supporters on hand as she gets ready to receive a doctor of nursing practice diploma.

Some students wore regular clothes; others dressed in graduation caps and gowns. Some went all-out decorating their cars and trucks. One red convertible sported a huge mortarboard on its hood. One student peeked out of a window from the back of a Cadillac Escalade limousine so long that it couldn’t make the turn to get to the diploma pick-up – she had to get out and walk there. Another student arrived on a bicycle.

College of Pharmacy graduate Travone Lumsden played it low-key, riding through in his car as he acknowledged the strangeness of the event. “Unorthodox to say the least. Weird. But it’s nice to be able to do it. I appreciate it.”

A sign about how the coronavirus didn't stop graduation 
A sign serves as a reminder of the circumstances surrounding the unusual ceremony — and the determination of students and faculty to honor everyone's hard work.

Holland Palmgren, who earned a doctor of nursing practice degree with a family nurse practitioner concentration, arrived in an SUV with the words “corona class” written on the side. She called the ceremony a good alternative. “It’s safe and still recognizes the hard work that all of the graduates put in.”

Madeleine Lee and Haines Fleshman, who arrived together to pick up their diplomas for health care administration, got a little emotional. “I think we’re just so happy that they’ve done this for us,” Lee said. 

Fleshman agreed. “It’s nice to feel appreciated when a bunch of us don’t know what’s going on with our career and it’s nice to still feel like we’re getting a reward even though there’s a lot of uncertainty.”

Mary Hinson, Mandy Elmore, Wayne Hinson and John Elmore cheer for J.C. Elmore 
Family members who traveled from Anderson to celebrate College of Medicine student J.C. Elmore's graduation cheer him on.

The uncertainty that has come with the coronavirus pandemic affected other students as well, including College of Dental Medicine graduate Felicia Bragg. “It makes me a little nervous. I know dentists are No. 1 for being exposed to the coronavirus, but I think all of us are taking our time and giving us the proper safety precautions to help with patients.”

Safety precautions were on the minds of organizers of the diploma drive-through ceremony. When registrar Melissa Freeland realized the coronavirus meant that MUSC couldn’t hold its traditional commencement, which would have meant large crowds, hugs and handshakes, she started brainstorming. “To not be able to do something would be heartbreaking to me.”

They came up with the idea for the drive-through ceremony. Patrick Cassano, director of records and registration in the Office of Enrollment Management, described the precautions they took. “We had very little contact with all the materials. We had gloves and masks and we took all precautions to make today safe. We’re trying to do social distancing as much as we can. We wanted to make sure we can do something for the graduates but still have a safe environment for them.”

Celebration at drive through diploma ceremony 
Faculty members wave streamers and applaud as students drive by to pick up their diplomas.

Some family members came to celebrate in a designated area of the parking lot. Mandy and John Elmore, along with Mary and Wayne Hinson, came from Anderson, South Carolina, to surprise College of Medicine graduate J.C. Elmore. “Yesterday, we were like, 'Let’s all pile in and go,'” said Mandy Elmore. They brought cowbells to shake not only for her nephew but for all of the graduates who passed by.

It was a memorable event, if a little bittersweet for some students such as College of Medicine graduate Margaret Ball-Dayson. “I appreciate it for what it is. I understand, but I’m still kind of bummed that I don’t really get to celebrate this moment,” she said, wishing for a traditional ceremony full of pomp and circumstance to mark the students’ years of hard work.

It’s unclear what lies ahead as the world navigates the pandemic. But in the meantime, College of Graduate Studies Dean Paula Traktman said it’s important to celebrate accomplishments in whatever way is possible. “Anything we do to celebrate the students is great.”

Get the Latest MUSC News

Get more stories about what's happening at MUSC, delivered straight to your inbox.