The University of Wisconsin-La Crosse is offering a limited edition graduation shirt to graduating seniors. Every year there is a graduation shirt that says the class year and lists all of the graduates on the back. This year UWL highlighted COVID-19 on its shirt. The shirt reads “Class of 2020” and then replaces 2020 with “COVID-19” and features the UWL mascot, Stryker Eagle, wearing a face mask.
The shirt was designed through a collaboration with UWL and input from the Student Association (SA). Seniors will also be able to purchase the traditional graduation shirt on the tentative rescheduled commencement date, August 22, dependent on CDC gathering guidelines.
SA President Sita Agterberg and Vice President Dana Nielsen were consulted when designing the shirt and for the overall planning of ‘Couch Commencement.’ Agterberg said that there were concerns over it being insensitive, but after discussion with the administration, they decided it would be kept as an option for students who want to buy it. Nielsen explained that people working on the design sent her and Agterberg many sketches and possible slogans, but that they wanted to do something different this year.
“They considered keeping just the original design that is used every year, but they wanted to do something different to acknowledge that this year’s graduating seniors and grad students didn’t get the same full final year experience. They chose to include something in the design that would symbolize why this year is different from the rest. I was very appreciative that they recognized how challenging this year was and wanted to do something special for us,” she said.
Nielsen sent pictures of the proposed shirt designs, including the regular version to members of the SA executive cabinet and friends. She said only one student brought up that the design could be seen as insensitive, and she communicated this message to the individuals she had been working with.
Lilli Minor, a senior and public health major, said that she is hesitant about the design because she feels like graduation should be focused on the students, not the virus. “We have been in school for a lot of years and I want to be proud of graduation and this feels like it takes away from that.”
Minor also said that she feels like these shirts make light of the public health crisis. “They [the shirts] foster comedy out of a situation that’s no longer being taken seriously in Wisconsin. I also think the comedy comes out of a place of sadness for many whose senior year got cut short with no resolution. I would prefer we focus on COVID in the way that it deserves and keep our time at UWL valid and meaningful, aside from COVID.”
Isabel Ortiz, a senior at UWL said she felt “embarrassed” by the shirt design. “Although I understand comedy and laughter is a way of coping, I feel like this situation isn’t something to make light of in a statement about our graduating class. The way graduates’ hard work throughout our academic career has been ‘meme-ified’ on this t-shirt is disappointing, to say the least. I certainly – and other students I imagine – don’t want our graduation to be defined by COVID-19 anymore than this semester’s experience. I promise you we definitely won’t forget what finishing our degrees was like during this crisis, so let us commemorate our graduation as normal as possible. We are the class of 2020, putting in years of work to get this far and it should be designated as such.”
Ortiz explained that she has personally struggled mentally during the transitions of COVID-19, even to the point where she was unsure if she would graduate anymore. Both of her parents are essential workers and have been exposed to people who have tested positive for COVID-19, which has taken a toll on her mental health.
She finds the shirt “problematic,” and said that it, “comes from a place of privilege to be able to make fun of a crisis,” due to the fact that she feels like COVID-19 has been a “traumatic” experience for many people, including UWL students.
“Because it has been so traumatic, this quirky t-shirt design comes off as insensitive. Like, read the room? I see that institutions want to be a source of relatable content, but I’m not sure that should be their priority in a global crisis,” Ortiz said.
As of 2 p.m. May 15, there have been 128,657 negative COVID-19 test results in Wisconsin, 11, 685 positive test results, 1,977 hospitalizations, and 445 deaths. In La Crosse County as of 3 p.m. on May 15 there have been 44 total cases of COVID-19, 32 have recovered, 2 are currently hospitalized, and there have been no deaths.