May 8, 2020 / 10:05 AM / 3 months ago

Robots to the rescue! Arizona students in lockdown will still get their graduation day

(Reuters) - Juili Kale’s dreams to receive her master’s degree diploma in a ceremony cheered on by her family were dashed by the coronavirus - until robots came to the rescue.

Kale, who has been studying at Arizona State University, had planned the day for months. Her parents and brother would fly in from India, and a social media clock counted down the days until out-of-state friends would arrive in Phoenix for a big party.

But in March, the coronavirus pandemic ended those plans, as colleges nationwide closed down to stop the spread.

“The clock stopped at T minus 67,” said Kale, 40.

But the ceremony will take place, after all - just not as she anticipated.

Cameras pre-recorded Kale and about 140 of her fellow graduates as they logged on at home this week, dressed in graduation robes and mortar board caps. They took turns moving a remote-controlled robot on a podium at the university that held an eye-level display showing their face. Via the robot, they approached the dean to receive their diplomas and take a photo.

The pre-pandemic robots from Double Robotics, based in Burlingame, California, had been used to allow people to show up at weddings and funerals without traveling.

The “bittersweet” experience - shot and edited over two days - may not be ideal for the students, said Dean Sanjeev Khagram, but “we want to show that we did everything that we could to celebrate them.”

Kale will throw a watch party with her husband at home and her family in India when the three-hour event is webcast on YouTube on Monday.

Adjusting to the online experience was easy for millennial Nancy Sierras Morales, 22, the first in her family to graduate college.

“We have been able to adapt very quickly because we are used to being on a computer and on the phone almost like 24/7,” she said. “Graduating virtually, it’s not ideal but it’s actually also very cool and iconic to be like the first class ever to do this.”

Arizona State University's Thunderbird School of Global Management dean Sanjeev Khagram rehearses a virtual commencement ceremony using mobile telepresence robots, due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions in Phoenix, Arizona, U.S. April 30, 2020. ASU/Thunderbird School of Global Management/Handout via REUTERS.

When the lockdown is over, the class of 2020 can do a real-life walk at any future graduation ceremony they choose.

“I’m disappointed I’m not doing it on May the 11th... but I will get to experience this innovative, creative event anyway,” said Douglas Northcott, 41, who is graduating with a Masters in Applied Leadership and Management.

“And if anything, that makes it better, in that is spread over two times rather than one.”

Reporting by Jane Ross; Writing by Richard Chang; Editing by Rosalba O'Brien

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