WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) — With college commencements canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, one North Carolina university is going all out to celebrate the Class of 2020, enlisting help on campus and in the community.

The University of North Carolina at Wilmington is in the midst of a multi-faceted approach to honor the seniors who won’t be able to walk across the stage this weekend and hear cheers from family, friends and classmates. It brings to an end a tough two years which has included canceling classes for Hurricane Florence in 2018 and Hurricane Dorian in 2019.

“Initially, it had a little bit of shock value associated with it, followed by a complete understanding of the reasoning behind it,” said Nick Planovich, a business administration major and outgoing UNCW student body president, whose ceremony was scheduled for Friday. “Once that shock and understanding occurred, a bit of sadness followed, that kind of realization that, although we'll eventually get a graduation ceremony, it's going to look much different that everyone else's.”

Planovich said it felt like a piece of the graduates has been taken away, but he credited the school with helping to make the most of the situation.

“To me, it's a really difficult position for graduating seniors across the nation to be in,” he said. “It's an adversity that we're all faced with. With that being said, there's not a lot that can ... suffice for that experience.”

In the campaign, school officials sent a message to social media thanking parents for helping their kids reach graduation, even if they won't see their kids in caps and gowns. Also, more than 150 employees volunteered to send handwritten notes to the more than 2,600 graduates.

The effort started Wednesday with UNCW faculty members calling each of the graduates. It will culminate at noon Saturday, when the school is asking local residents to show their appreciation by shooting videos of themselves cheering on graduates, faculty and staff from their homes. Students are also being asked to post photos of what the school has meant to them.

Planovich said he will mark the time he would have spent at commencement reflecting on his college life, writing thank-you cards to people who helped him and get on Zoom to speak with his family. He'd already planned to go fishing.

“My buddy has a little john boat,” he said. “That should be somewhat enjoyable, trying to get back to life as usual.”

Elsewhere, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is inviting the graduating class to join a watch party on social media Sunday to let them and their families celebrate until a live ceremony can be held. The city of Greensboro is honoring graduates from North Carolina A&T State University and UNC Greensboro by lighting buildings in the downtown area in the respective school's colors of blue and gold. East Carolina University marked commencement in a virtual ceremony Thursday.


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