I found it on CNN. In a video from my alma mater, the Olin College of Engineering class of 2020 stood clutching origami hats, catching the wind with their garbage-bag gowns. What started as a student suggestion twenty-four hours earlier—”What if we had a fake commencement?”—was now the first (and hopefully last) Olin faux-mencement. In the midst of the COVID-19 catastrophe, Olin united to celebrate their graduates and provide emotional catharsis.
The situation in my graduate student residence three thousand miles away could not be more different. Our staff begged residents to stop stealing toilet paper. Anti-Asian slurs—scrawled in the elevator—shocked our community. Residents eyed each other with suspicion.
As I watched a community drawn together from within a community torn apart, I wanted to understand this stark contrast: How, in twenty-four hours, did Olin find the will to hold an ad hoc commencement? The answer, I learned through a series of interviews, was a meticulously crafted spirit of empowerment shared equally among faculty, staff, and students. An idea Olin calls cocreation.
Cocreating a Faux-mencement
Olin’s former library director Jeff Goldenson traced the spark of the faux-mencement back to a staff and student meeting. The mood was dour—they had just learned the semester would be finished virtually. Commencement would surely be cancelled.
“Our seniors were really upset. We weathered this emotional moment to keep going,” Goldenson said.
The team brainstormed productive things they might do. A time capsule? A big birthday party? Senior Evan New-Schmidt posed the idea that stuck: “What if we had a fake commencement?”
It struck a chord. Goldenson encouraged the students to fully recreate the commencement experience, asking them, “Who’s going to make fake diplomas?” They took off to partner with the registrar.
The students mobilized additional partnerships across campus. “It gave the community something to work towards together,” said Adva Waranyuwat, assistant dean of student affairs.
Provost Mark Somerville presided over the faux-mencement, delivering traditional speeches updated for the moment. Addressing the faux graduates, he declared, “By the power vested in me by absolutely nobody, you now have the rights and responsibilities of anyone who has completed 3.75 years at Olin College.”
In addition to providing a sense of closure and support, “A decade from now, faux-mencement will be the biggest learning experience for those students,” Somerville told me.
The lesson? How to successfully engage in cocreation.
“I think this is the key missed opportunity in higher ed: shifting what it means to be a student, a learner, and a person who is part of creating a learning experience,” Somerville said.
From Powerless Consumers to Empowered Cocreators
Somerville has been developing his ideas about cocreation since helping to found Olin. He presents the idea of cocreation as the intersection of two axes, with consumer and creator on one axis and the powerless and empowered on the other:
In this model, a student confronted with the problem, “This class isn’t working for me . . . ,” could finish the sentence in four ways:
- Powerless Consumer: “. . . and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
- Empowered Consumer: “. . . and I’m going to complain to the dean about it.”
- Jilted Creator: “. . . and they keep saying they value my feedback.”
- Cocreator: “. . . and I can help fix it.”
Somerville wants all students to have an education in the fourth quadrant. I enjoyed the benefits of being a cocreator as an undergraduate but had a very different experience as a PhD candidate.
In my graduate student residence, I’m resigned to the fact that my opinion doesn’t matter. While students and faculty sheltered in place, my university declared building construction essential. Legally confined to my home, I had to defend my thesis above a construction site. The sound of alarms and breaking concrete raged as I delivered the culminating address of my PhD. Before, I asked my university’s staff what support I could get for this important event. I was sent a cookie-cutter email informing me I could check out noise-cancelling headphones and was thanked for my patience. I felt like a powerless consumer.
In contrast, I’ve never seen another institution with quite so pervasive a sense of collaboration between faculty, staff, and students as Olin College.
Goldenson, drawing on his experience at Harvard’s Library Innovation Lab, encouraged Olin students for years to engage in bottom-up experimentation. He took on the role of a producer, telling students, “This won’t happen without you.”
Waranyuwat helped me understand the staff’s perspective. Asked to speak at the faux-mencement, she was deeply moved to be included.
Everyone I spoke with at Olin agreed that the community-wide sense of cocreation helped to make faux-mencement happen. What other institute of higher education would hear a student suggestion and, in twenty-four hours, engage their administration, faculty, staff, and students in campus-wide emotional catharsis?
In times of need, people will look to the communities that have demonstrated commitment to supporting their members. I’ve seen—in my residence—that people in communities without ties will look out for themselves. But communities that have taken the risk of supporting empowered creators have found huge returns. As a soon-to-be faculty member, I, for one, look forward to fostering a spirit of cocreation.