The longest procession: Five full days, 6,400 graduates, one at a time

The Greek Theatre seats are empty, but the stage is decorated with flags and flowers for graduates to enjoy as they receive a scroll and congrats from a campus leader

Its seats may be empty, but the Greek Theatre is busy for five days this week as more than 6,400 graduates cross its stage one at a time — 30 every 10 minutes — during the pandemic, savoring their only chance to wear regalia, receive a scroll and be congratulated by a campus leader. (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

If you get nostalgic, or your spirit soars, hearing Sir Edward Elgar’s processional, “Pomp and Circumstance,” it’s been playing more than 10 hours a day since Sunday at UC Berkeley’s Greek Theatre and will continue through Thursday.

Why? Check out the livestreamed, five-day, in-person procession of 2021 Berkeley graduates that the campus devised — the idea was rapidly copied by other schools — to give students what they said they wanted most at a pandemic-era graduation.

“In our surveys, they wanted the opportunity to walk across the stage and receive something physically tangible from an academic leader, to give them a sense of closure,” said Amy Cranch, a University Development and Alumni Relations staffer on hand Sunday morning to help guide and congratulate the first few hours’ worth of students crossing the stage.

The Class of 2021 Virtual Commencement was held on Saturday, May 15, and the following day, the optional, multi-day procession began, under chilly and gray skies, at the beloved, bowl-shaped 1903 campus amphitheater designed by John Galen Howard.

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Every 10 minutes, 30 graduates are walking — one at a time — and being videotaped across the Greek Theatre stage, most of them in regalia and beaming and waving at family and friends watching remotely. More than 6,400 students signed up for a time slot and then prepared by watching a “May 2021 Graduation Procession Do’s + Don’t’s” campus video.

COVID-19 restrictions are in force: Before entering the Greek, the graduates, masked and socially distanced, are required to display an e-badge showing they’re in campus compliance with COVID-19 testing, a negative coronavirus test result from within the last 72 hours, or a valid vaccine card.

Each graduate got the chance to create a personalized slide — name, major, photo, favorite quote or words of gratitude — that’s shown during the livestream as the student’s pre-recorded name and degree earned is read. Campus leaders, including Chancellor Carol Christ, are taking turns on stage handing each student a rolled-up certificate of participation. A printed — and downloadable — graduation booklet with the name of every student graduating is offered to participants as they exit the stage.

Graduates in regalia wait for their solo walk onto the stage at the Greek Theatre, and a dispenser of hand sanitizer is nearby..

Graduates await their solo walk onto the Greek Theatre stage, and perhaps a stop at the hand sanitizer dispenser. (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

Meanwhile, families and friends around the world are watching their graduates live, most of them from their homes via computer or phone; they also can view the video later. On Sunday, some relatives showed up outside the Greek Theatre’s gates, having traveled to Berkeley to huddle around their cell phones, watch their students in the procession, and then greet them in person with hugs and flowers.

Karen Sakamoto flew in from Honolulu, Hawaii, and stood just outside the amphitheater to congratulate her daughter, Paris Sato, who received a degree in architecture, and to put the colorful leis she’d brought on the plane around her neck. She admitted it was “a little heartbreaking” to not be able to sit in Memorial Stadium, as she’d once imagined, with thousands of other parents cheering on the Class of 2021, but that it was “nice to have the video.”

Rather than a cap and gown, her daughter wore her full-length white high school graduation dress, her Berkeley graduation stole and a crown of flowers from Sakamoto. Sato said she was happy students could sign up to process with their friends; some graduates hadn’t seen their classmates and former roommates in person since Berkeley switched to remote instruction in March 2020.

A student crosses the stage at the Greek Theatre wearing regalia and a colorful stole.

One at a time, students crossed the stage, where the heraldic flags, in all the academic hood colors, usually are hung from above. A forklift with two workers in close proximity is required for such a job, so this year, the flags were placed in stands. (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

Sato and her first-year friend, Claire Black, from Laguna Beach, chose time slots next to each other. Black, whose degree is in political science, was thrilled the event was at the Greek, saying, “it’s one of my favorite places on the planet. I used to hear concerts here for free — I heard one of Tom Petty’s last concerts here in 2017.” She’d had a job there pulling recyclables from the trash and putting them in the right bins; she’s now headed to a fellowship at the California Supreme Court headquarters in San Francisco, to work with those who can’t afford lawyers.

The theater, its stage decorated this week with dozens of heraldic flags representing all the academic hood colors, was a special venue, too, for Senior Class Council President Megan Wiener, who was dressed in full regalia, with a Cal mask, and had signed up to process with six friends. Headed next for Berkeley Law, she also was the Rally Committee’s vice chair; before the pandemic, the group held annual events at the Greek, like Big Game Bonfire.

“Obviously, we understand the situation, why we can’t have a normal, full commencement experience,” said Wiener, whose hometown is San Diego. “I definitely think it’s great that we at least get to walk in some capacity, to get that feeling.”

Students in regalia line up outside the Greek Theatre on the first of a five-day graduation procession during the pandemic.

Students continued to line up outside the Greek Theatre throughout the entire day on Sunday, the start of a five-day, COVID-era graduation procession. (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

Four friends who met their first year at Berkeley — Pamela George, Yazmin Renteria Sanchez, Laila Elias and Geraldine Lonsdale — also chose to process one after the other. Three of them are roommates, and Renteria joined them Saturday night so they could get ready for the event together, with new shoes and stylish sunglasses with bright-colored lenses.

“It’s great I got to dress up with my friends,” said George, who graduated with a degree in molecular and cell biology and is planning to attend medical school. On Sunday afternoon, the foursome traveled to Vallejo for a graduation party thrown by Lonsdale’s family.

For Renteria, who lived with her parents in Sacramento during the pandemic, the chance to have a special livestreamed moment, all her own, meant that a group of about 30 of her relatives in Mexico could watch their first family member to attend college walk the stage.

“Except for me, no one in my family has even graduated from high school,” the molecular and cell biology major — and aspiring doctor — said. “And my mom has 17 brothers and sisters, and my dad has 12.”

Famiies and friends of the graduates sit outside the Greek Theatre gates and watch the livestreamed event on their phone.

Friends and family, unable to view the procession inside the Greek Theatre, sit just outside its gates and watch the livestreamed event on their phones, eager to catch a glimpse of their favorite graduates. (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

Typically, Berkeley has more graduation ceremonies than any other college or university in the U.S., said Maya Goehring-Harris, Berkeley’s director of external relations and the Office of Protocol. There are about 68 formal, departmental ceremonies, she said, and a total of nearly 100, when adding in those held by student organizations.

This month, during a most challenging year, only the virtual commencement and the Greek Theatre procession were scheduled.

Tsu-Jae King Liu, dean of the College of Engineering, spent two hours on the dais on Sunday, clapping for and congratulating students who crossed the stage and posing with them for photos.

“I tried to greet each student by their first name, to help personalize the experience, and it was great to see them smile in response,” she said. “It was a joy and a privilege to celebrate such an important, well-deserved milestone with the graduates.”

Paris Soto and her mom, Karen Sakamoto, hug each other tightly after Soto finished walking across the Greek Theatre stage.

Paris Sato, who is graduating with a degree in architecture, hugs her mom, Karen Sakamoto, who flew from Hawaii to wait for her daughter to exit the Greek Theatre stage. (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

Athletic Director Jim Knowlton,  who also took a turn onstage on Sunday, emailed that he “had a blast … handing out ‘diplomas,’ and that it looked like the graduates did, too.”

“The students were extremely appreciative and were able to still have fun in the empty Greek Theatre,” he said. “There was lots of waving to imagined fans, families and friends, and also a lot of hooting and celebrating.”

Those who have been — and will be — at the Greek Theatre more than just a few hours a day may be celebrating an end on Thursday to hearing the seemingly endless loop of “Pomp and Circumstance,” despite the happiness they’re witnessing and feeling there this week.

So many hours of nonstop “Pomp and Circumstance” “is enough to drive anyone insane. I feel like I hum it in my sleep,” quipped Rob Bean. event operations manager at the Greek Theatre. “In a normal graduation year, many of the schools (on campus) break it up with different versions of it, like reggae or jazz/big band. But, alas, this year, because of the nature of what we’re doing, it’s one looooonnnnnng four-hour song, followed by our lunch break, then another five hours of it.”

Said Goehring-Harris, who also is becoming extra familiar with the famous march during the five-day event, “It would definitely be interesting to study the cognitive impact of it.”