NYU’s virtual graduation celebration turned into a bizarre sendoff for students
On May 19th, New York University student John DiLillo attended Grad Alley, the school’s annual block party to celebrate commencement. For two hours, he and a few friends went to places like “Pictionary Island” and peered into the (surprisingly hollow) rubbery inside of a dolphin. He got stuck underground. He ran into exactly six people, including “a mysterious panda avatar who flew several virtual yards away from us and claimed to be a moderator trying to make sure we were having fun.” Eventually, he logged off with a headache.
DiLillo, like countless students across the country, would not be spending graduation the way he envisioned. The pandemic has made that kind of mass gathering, filled with students, teachers, and parents, not just irresponsible, but potentially deadly. To soften the loss, NYU officials instead ushered thousands of students into a virtual space dubbed “VR Grad Alley,” a blocky, low-res re-creation of places associated with the school. The idea makes sense on paper. Stuck inside, people have had to get creative. House Party is how we socialize, dates take place on FaceTime, weddings happen over Zoom, and Animal Crossing is where the best talk shows are. Travis Scott held a concert in Fortnite. If kids can re-create their college campuses in Minecraft, why not throw a graduation party online?
But for some students who attended, Grad Alley wasn’t just a letdown. It was a puzzling experience to send them off into the world. Those who spoke to The Verge describe it as surreal or even downright bleak. “It had tremendous DashCon vibes,” says student Chris Kindred, referring to Tumblr’s infamous failed con. “Somebody really tried to make a slice of New York, seemingly based on no reference of New York.”
A spokesperson for NYU, Jason Hollander, tells The Verge that the school came up with the idea after speaking to senior students. Many wished they could return to campus before graduation. “While we sadly couldn’t fulfill that for them, we wanted to offer them some sense of being back in the Village before they officially became alumni,” he says. They decided to do a riff on the Grad Alley block party, this time “in VR as a nostalgic taste” of Washington Square Park where the festivities typically take place.
“The goal was to give students a chance to explore the space alongside friends, to make a few last lighthearted NYU memories, and to, hopefully, bring a smile to their faces after a long and challenging semester,” Hollander says.
To enter Grad Alley, students first created their avatar, a legless, robotic being with a bubblehead and googly-eyed stare. They could choose from a set of cartoonish skins, including everything from pandas and Game Boys to Star Trek’s Spock. There was also the option to upload photos to blank avatars, but some students had trouble with this as well. “I couldn’t find a photo that fit the mold, so it just ended up looking like my avatar was wearing an alien’s skin Silence of the Lambs-style,” DiLillo says. The VR world included rooms to join for different activities, such as chess in a virtual Washington Square Park, a trivia lounge, and a rooftop lounge.
But VR Grad Alley was, by design, not made to allow for students to meet up with just anyone. They could invite each other into rooms that held up to 25 of their friends, but only after the event went live. To do so, they needed a link or code to the room they intended to join. “We did this so that friends could find each other and spend time together on their last official day as students,” Hollander says.
Each account of the experience given to The Verge sounds a bit like a person describing a dream. Kindred says he went to the Kimmel Rooftop Lounge “because it looked the least ridiculous,” only to encounter “a video of a guy who looked almost exactly like Quentin Tarantino, playing a midi controller.” Eventually, he realized his character model wasn’t attached to the floor, allowing him to freely float away. “I did end up finding my way to the end of the universe,” he jokes about his character clipping through the game’s scenery. “I ended up going maybe a few minutes out, and I guess at that point it started to look a little profound.” Or at least, he adds, as profound as it could be after you’ve found the seams of the game.
Another student, Melissa Alvarez, says it felt like playing a…