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How It Happened; Planning a Virtual Commencement – ‘The Appalachian Way’

Whether physically distancing at 6 feet or miles apart, thousands tuned in for Appalachian’s Spring 2020 Commencement, a historic first for the university that was organized in response to concerns surrounding the global coronavirus pandemic.

What does it take to transition a traditional commencement for thousands of graduates to an online event?

Ingenuity, adaptability and some Appalachian know-how, according to Troy Tuttle ’07, creative director for Appalachian’s University Communications, and Margaret McCoy, executive director of donor engagement and university events, who co-managed the commencement planning efforts.

Tuttle and McCoy oversaw and worked with a Commencement Planning Committee comprising students, faculty, staff, alumni and administrators to make Appalachian’s first virtual commencement a reality.

“Under all circumstances, whatever we encountered — whether it was a small thing or an unknown — our adaptability is what got us through and made commencement successful,” McCoy said of the event planning process. “It’s the most difficult, best thing I’ve ever been involved in.”

McCoy, the parent of an Appalachian Class of 2020 graduate, said her son, Jack McCoy, who “saw firsthand the work put in to make the event special for students,” was super supportive. Jack McCoy graduated with a B.S. in communication, public relations.

With few examples of online commencements to turn to for inspiration at the beginning of the project, Tuttle and McCoy shared the two questions that guided their vision for Appalachian’s ceremony: “How do we create a meaningful experience for our students? And how do we engage them in a way that is worthy of their degree and their accomplishment?”

“Everyone rolled up their sleeves to get involved in this project,” Tuttle said. “This is the Appalachian way of doing things.”

Thousands celebrate #AppStateClassof2020 in the cloud

Appalachian’s first virtual commencement was attended by individuals from across the world and all 50 states; the online event has received nearly 40,000 views — and counting.

Graduates and Appalachian faculty shared their celebratory commencement photos through various social media channels, including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, by using the hashtags #AppStateClassof2020, #AppStateGrad and #AppStateAlumni, and the tags @AppState and @AppAlumni.

In one Instagram post featured on Appalachian’s commencement website, graduate Travian Smith, of Charlotte, shared, “I am extremely thankful to have gained such an amazing experience at Appalachian. Thank you … for challenging me to come out of my comfort zone and take on leadership roles that have led me to discover my true passion.”

Smith, who received Appalachian’s inaugural National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC) Divine Nine Leadership Award in 2019, earned his B.S in political science with a concentration in public administration, as well as a minor in community and regional planning.

Gatlin Hiatt, of Lowgap, who graduated with a BFA in art education (K–12), shared the following in her Instagram post: “Today was a day I will forever mark in my book as so very special. … My immediate family held a graduation for me, my mom was there to hand me my diploma when my name was called … I felt so celebrated, so loved.”

Check out Appalachian’s commencement website for more photos and messages celebrating Appalachian’s newest class of alumni.