Graduation Day is an important day for any school, and it is no different at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), which educates and trains military, law enforcement and civilian students from 17 countries in the Western Hemisphere. Students endure rigorous hours of studying and training to graduate from courses that range from three months to an entire year in length. Their graduation ceremonies are attended by immediate family members and their extended family, friends, and leadership view the graduation on Facebook Live across the hemisphere.
So, imagine how disappointing it is for students to be notified there will be no graduation ceremonies due to the pandemic. Suddenly, handshakes and back-slaps are out. Even fist bumps and elbow taps are put on hold. Since physical interaction in large groups is not possible for the foreseeable future, education leaders must be creative and adaptive in finding new ways to recognize academic excellence within the current public health guidelines.
At WHINSEC, the command group has recognized that cancelling graduation ceremonies adversely affects student morale. The command understands the importance of acknowledging students' hard work, especially during these unprecedented times. The Commandant, Colonel John Suggs, and Command Sergeant Major, Command Sergeant Major Jose Lopez, have directed course directors to plan ceremonies that have two specific outcomes. First, they will recognize the students' accomplishments "in-person", while still adhering to all Army COVID-19 social distancing directives. Second, they will model social distancing best practices for our partners in the hemisphere, underscoring WHINSEC’s role as a regional educator.
What follows is a description of the key functions that comprise a WHINSEC end-of-course Recognition Ceremony and the solutions undertaken to meet the Commandant’s guidance of conducting ceremonies within the constraints of COVID-19:
Past vs. Present
WHINSEC course schedules are synchronized to facilitate combined, large-group graduations. However, with the current requirement to reduce the number of students gathered in one space, each course is now conducting its own ceremony to create a much smaller footprint. While this increases the frequency of ceremonies, the net effect on the staff to plan and execute them is offset by the much smaller scale of these ceremonies. The pre-pandemic combined graduations were a “whole of staff” production. Current “small group” ceremonies require much less staff participation.
Additionally, WHINSEC graduations have always been open to the public. Now they are a closed forum and only essential personnel, in addition to the students, physically attend the ceremonies to ensure social distancing requirements are met.
Finally, to denote the difference in the ceremony, the event has been changed from a publicly attended "Graduation Ceremony" to a virtually attended "Recognition Ceremony."
Recognition Ceremony Format
WHINSEC Recognition Ceremonies adhere as closely as possible to the WHINSEC Graduation Ceremony SOP that specifies standard ceremony components. These include:
- National Anthem
- Course Description by the Master of Ceremony (MC)
- Student Remarks (either Honor Graduate or Senior Student)
- Commandant Remarks
- Guest Speaker Remarks
- Presentation of Student Diplomas
- Academic Awards
- Student Gift(s) to the Institute
- MC Concluding Remarks
- Playing of WHINSEC and Army Songs
WHINSEC has further minimized the requirement for in-person attendees by leveraging available technology. For example, the command chaplain delivers the invocation remotely and this is live-streamed simultaneously to both attendees in the WHINSEC auditorium as well as to viewers watching on Facebook Live. Furthermore, although keynote speakers have been present at the first few recognition ceremonies, they can just as easily impart their "words of wisdom" remotely or via a recorded message.
Key to any successful event and especially one that is virtually enhanced and attended is effective communications. The WHINSEC Communications and Outreach Directorate (COD) sends announcements with a Facebook page link for the students to share with their leadership, family, and friends back home. The COD also contacts out to the US Southern Command's Public Affairs Office to help increase the ceremony reach into students' home countries. Within 48 hours of the Facebook Live broadcast event, 139,000 people had been reached. All of that reach of multiple audiences for our 20 graduates.
When personnel must be physically present to prepare for ceremonies, they do so in shifts and observing social distancing norms. By the time the ceremony is ready to execute, the Protocol section has set up all necessary flags and tables during one shift and the Information Technology specialists have set up all the cameras and microphones during a different shift. WHINSEC has developed social distancing "etiquette" for the ceremony which requires staff to wipe down all plaques, which are presented in name only and then placed on a nearby table. Hand wipes are placed at the podium and speakers are required to wipe the microphone and podium as they leave the stage. Space, in both time and distance, is needed between the departure and arrival of subsequent speakers to and from the podium.
Seating and transitions
The WHINSEC auditorium, which seats 250 personnel, easily accommodates a group of 20 students and the minimal number of essential WHINSEC Staff applying social distancing guidelines. In past graduations, students sat shoulder to shoulder in each row. In the Recognition Ceremony, students are seated only three per row and staggered throughout the auditorium. Before the event, nameplates with the students' names and their diplomas and any special awards are wiped down and the diplomas are placed either on their assigned seats or at a table on the stage. In rows of three, students line up along the side wall of the auditorium when they are announced to come forward to be recognized. There are markers on the floor at six foot intervals to indicate proper social distancing between students.
When their names are called, each student individually comes on stage and makes a brief statement to the virtual audience via a microphone set up for that purpose, thus giving the student the platform to celebrate their success with their family, friends and colleagues in their home countries. The student then returns to his or her seat and the next student is called forward, so appropriate social distancing is maintained at all times.
As our Commandant, Colonel Suggs says, "This recognition is about the students at the end of the day. Anything is possible if we put the great minds of our organization together to collaborate and think outside of the norm. The key is not to stop our work in support of the mission; it is to adjust the way that we work to accomplish the mission."
At the end of the day, executing a meaningful recognition ceremony that adheres to social distancing standards is the requirement. Sharing the tradition with audiences throughout the hemisphere is the key to success and WHINSEC has found effective solutions to accomplish this through adaptive and safe procedures that challenge our staff to be creative and flexible.