The end-of-year celebrations college seniors had been most looking forward to can’t be replicated online.

Sarasota residents fearful of wine-fueled college students tearing through the streets on bicycles while chugging boxed Cabernet can rest assured. There will be no “Tour de Franzia” this spring.

The annual race/party, named for the cheap wine New College of Florida bike enthusiasts drink as they ride through the city at the end of each semester won’t be happening.

Neither will “Worst of Ringling,” an annual house party during which students at neighboring Ringling College of Art and Design toast the seniors and roast them for their most unsuccessful attempts at creativity during an ironically titled response to the school’s official award ceremony.

Sarasota and Manatee’s institutions of higher learning have scrambled to replicate the rites of senior year, with campuses closed since mid-March because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Colleges are mailing students their caps and gowns and encouraging students to gather on Zoom to “socialize.”

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But it’s the countless unofficial traditions — the theme parties, post-graduation dinners at restaurants with parents, final flings and the late-night study-session gossip — those are the memories that administrators cannot recreate and that the Class of 2020 is missing most acutely.

“Typically, everybody knows that this is crunch time, but there has always been the light at the end of the tunnel, and that is these traditions,” said New College senior Jacob Wentz. “But now that’s out of the window.”

If this were a normal year, Wentz would be celebrating the completion of his thesis with a booze cruise on Sarasota Bay, and his friends would be picking outlandish costumes to wear during New College’s notoriously colorful commencement. Last year one student crossed the stage dressed as a French revolutionary, and another came as their favorite gas station attendant.

Instead, Wentz is living with Grandma in Lutz.

“It’s not that bad,” he said. “She loves to cook.”

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Wentz has used the time to buckle down on his senior thesis, a requirement for all New College graduates. But for many students, the isolation is stifling, and the Zoom sessions and email can’t replicate the academic wrangling that they are accustomed to.

At Ringling, where students come from nearly every state and more than 60 countries, the seniors have scattered. With due dates looming, some students are questioning the idea that true artists thrive in isolation.

Courtney Jones, a 22-year-old Ringling creative writing student, can’t help comparing herself to those authors who hole up in a cabin for a year and emerge with a masterpiece. Living alone in a garage apartment on Siesta Key as she works on her screenplay has made her realize how crucial social interaction is to her creative process.

“You hear so much about authors who took a year, went away and came back with their book. Harper Lee took a whole year off and wrote ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’” Jones said. “I can’t do that. I am not a machine.”

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Schools respond differently

School administrators can’t do anything about the missed unofficial gatherings and interactions graduates pine for. But the question of what to do about graduation ceremonies has led area schools to take different approaches, with the key question whether no ceremony is better than a virtual ceremony.

The State College of Florida and University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee both opted for virtual ceremonies. In addition, SCF has invited graduates to an in-person ceremony in December, and USFSM is tentatively planning an event in August for graduates.

On Friday, SCF graduate Luke Sandlin, 21, sat on the lanai at his mom’s house, delivering a speech to his laptop.

Sandlin’s bare feet and cutoff shorts weren’t visible to the hundreds of people watching SCF’s 2020 commencement on the livestream — they just saw him from the waist up, as he talked about the opportunities SCF had given him, and how he ended up receiving the Outstanding Graduate Award.

“SCF has given me gift after gift that I personally feel wholly unworthy of, but I realize each time it was my choice to walk through the door, as much as it was their choice to place the door there for me,” Sandlin said. “And each time I acted on an opportunity I started to change from the person I thought I was to the person that I am.”

Despite the nontraditional format, it was a big moment for Sandlin, who had been the kid wanting nothing to do with college four years ago. After graduating from high school in Virginia, he got a job selling cars. College seemed too fratty, too focused on the parties, and Sandlin wanted to make money.

When he moved to Florida in 2018, his goal was to get through school as quickly as possible. He didn’t need new friends, and SCF was just a means to an end. That attitude lasted about a month, he said, until he saw the beautiful girl recruiting students to join the theater club.

Two years later, he’s had the lead role in four productions, dated the beautiful girl, served as student government vice president and given speeches to wealthy donors at fundraisers.

He appreciates the lengths SCF went to in making the best of an unprecedented situation at graduation, broadcasting the ceremony on WSLR 96.5 FM, WSLR.org and the school’s Facebook page. He drafted dozens of versions of his speech and practiced his delivery for days.

Sandling said the remote ceremony lacked a certain punch. It seemed like a mad-lib to him, he said, as if someone described his college graduation, but left blanks that were filled in with words like “barefoot” and “lanai.”

Plus, who knows how many were scrolling through Instagram as he spoke, g-chatting with friends or who hadn’t bothered to tune in at all. He thinks his mom was watching on Facebook live, but he is pretty sure his sisters were asleep.

“I love public speaking,” Sandlin said. “But doing it over Zoom just doesn’t hold the same weight that it could … It stinks not getting to sit up on the stage and shake everyone’s hands.”

University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee will be holding a virtual ceremony as well, where the school’s 280 graduates will graduate from home on May 9.

USFSM spokesman Shawn Ahearn said the school surveyed students and that most wanted some sort of in-person event. The school toyed with holding a drive-through ceremony, but ultimately opted for the virtual ceremony with tentative plans to bring students back in August for an in-person event.

“One of the great things about the college experience is the connectivity,” Ahearn said. “Going to classes together, drinking coffee together, studying together. When that is taken away, there is a real void.”

The fear that a remote ceremony would feel more like a letdown than the culminating moment it should be led officials at Ringling and New College to abandon plans for a virtual ceremony altogether.

Both schools have tight-knit campuses, filled with artists and free thinkers who have spent the last four years entwined in each other’s lives. As school officials talked to students about what they wanted, the more risky an online ceremony seemed.

“Our worst fear as seniors was having to undergo a virtual graduation,” said New College graduate Isabella Cibelli Du Terroil, 21. “All these years and we are going to have to graduate on Zoom?”

Ultimately, New College is planning a special ceremony for students in December, and Ringling invited the Class of 2020 to walk at next year’s graduation.

“We are not doing a virtual graduation ceremony at all,” said Tammy Walsh, vice president for student life and dean of students at Ringling. “Our graduates deserve the ‘wow’ of an in-person ceremony. You really just can’t replicate that.”

Some changes for the good

Despite the sadness of missing out on so many rites of passage, some students are hopeful that the changes forced by the pandemic will improve the college experience overall.

SCF graduate and Pine View senior Nicholas Jurczyk, 17, said SCF’s online classes were impressive, with professors giving Zoom lectures and interacting with students, rather than just posting assignments and giving grades, like some online instructors do.

“Hopefully that will stick around in the future,” he said. “I think it’s a much nicer and easier way of learning.”

And at Ringling, the “Worst of Ringling” house party may be a bust, but seniors’ work will be showcased on www.ringlingthesis.com, with the site going live on May 7.

Normally, graduates show off their work in an on-campus gallery, but the new online format means more potential employers will see the students’ creativity.

“The reach will be much further than it would be otherwise,” Walsh said.

If anything, the pandemic has reinforced how much social life is a part of the college experience.

New College officials may not be crazy about the acronym attached to the “PCP Ceremony,” a tri-annual campus-wide celebration (the “PCP” stands for Palm Court Party, not the drug), but the loss of such traditions has reminded both students and administrators how important the frivolous moments can be.

New College graduate Isabella Cibelli Du Terroil has barely left her parents’ house in Venice since March. She keeps sane by lifting weights, but she desperately misses the social life she had at school.

“I see my classmates on Zoom, but it is not the same. It’s sad,” she said. “I have gotten used to being at home now because it’s been so long. It has become a new normal.”

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