St. John’s Conference Services Helps Clients Navigate Pandemic


Foregoing traditional graduation ceremonies has become the norm since the COVID-19 pandemic began disrupting in-person gatherings nearly two years ago. But thanks to the outreach efforts at St. John’s University’s Conference Services, thousands of seniors at more than two dozen local high schools were able to walk across the stage to receive their diplomas last spring, as their family and friends cheered them on.

“If it weren’t for St. John’s we would have been forced to have a virtual ceremony,” said Clara Rivera, coordinator of student activities at William Cullen Bryant High School in Long Island City, whose 500 graduates took to the outdoor stage on the university’s Great Lawn for their commencement last June. “The space outside was so large that we were able to have three family members attend for each student while still being able to socially distance and follow all of the city and state regulations that were put into place.”

Indeed there’s been a dizzying array of ever-changing government mandates that schools, businesses and churches have had to follow in order to keep the virus at bay while continuing to operate in a post-COVID world.

“It’s definitely been a tricky path to navigate and we had to be creative and look for ways that allowed events to still be held on our grounds while adhering to ever-changing public health guidelines,” said Cheryl O’Hara, event manager for St. John’s Conference Services.

To that end, the college held 24 high school graduations on the Great Lawn of the 105-acre campus last year as well as one smaller indoor event at the university’s Carnesecca Arena, an uptick from the 23 commencements that took place at the school in 2019.

“We looked for alternative places, such as our outside facilities, where we could provide a ceremonial setting and include as many people as possible,” O’Hara said.

Classrooms and larger indoor venues were also made available to local community churches, which were scrambling to find ways to reach their congregations at a time when smaller spaces put their weekly fellowship services on hold.

“We were able to accommodate religious gatherings by keeping capacities at the required levels,” O’Hara noted. “Our technology allowed church leaders to link our classrooms and other sites together for their services.

“Some even met with members several times a day in order to make sure they didn’t have too many people together at one time,” she added.

Reverend Gus Kim, leader of the Grace Church moved his congregation to St. John’s when the city eased restrictions and his 150 members were able to return to in-person meetings.

“When we were allowed to once again gather, we needed a bigger place that provided a safer setting,” said Kim.

Since October of 2020, Kim has been using the university’s auditorium and several classrooms for his ministry.

“We are so grateful because, of course, there were a lot of limitations when it came to meeting in person, but as a church we are supposed to grow together, see each other’s faces and encourage each other,” he said. “Worshiping in small groups online is just not the same.”

Pastor John Bae, whose 200-member New Creation Fellowship church has been holding its weekly liturgies at St. John’s since 2018, said he, too, is appreciative of the university’s support of his ministry over the past three years.

“They were really accommodating when the government shutdown prevented us from meeting on campus,” and continued to meet our logistical needs when we were able to come back.”

When members returned to St. John’s in November of 2020, they adhered to strict protocols, such as check-ins, pre-registrations and staggered attendance.

“We were also able to fuse the school’s media with our own technology to livestream our services on our Youtube channel,” Bae said.

Working with appropriate clients to successfully execute events at a time when choices were few has helped provide new revenue opportunities for the university. O’Hara said the school has forged relationships with new clients over the past year and cultivated additional opportunities that are sure to increase future bookings.

“Our mission is to raise funds to offset student costs while strengthening our engagement within the community,” she said.

To bolster their efforts, St. John’s held a three-day drive-in film festival in one of its parking lots in early 2020, an event that drew approximately 200 cars overall. The campus also made its outdoor space available to several brands for television commercials and photography shoots, including an ad for a new phone app on the school’s running track, a photo session for a sports apparel company on the soccer field and a promotion for tennis equipment on the outdoor courts.

St. John’s already has 30 indoor graduations booked on campus for this June. Several English language learning and academic summer programs are scheduled for 2022 as well. All participants will be required to show proof of vaccination For now, O’Hara said it’s a wait and see as to capacity restrictions on upcoming events.

“We will be following the city, state and university guidelines when the time comes,” she said, “but we will continue to do whatever is required to provide our clients and community members with space so they can do what they do best.”

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