Despite the physical separation, Vanessa Guerra was more connected than ever during the defense of her dissertation.

“I ended up having a defense with about 40 people connected in four different continents. It was a real celebration,” said Guerra, who earned a Ph.D. in environmental design and planning. “It ended up being a very nice experience, and I am grateful for it.”

Traditionally, many graduate programs offer a public opportunity to witness the defense of a student’s dissertation. The event generally allows for attendees to ask questions about the work and students to showcase the fruits of their labor to family and friends.

When Virginia Tech moved courses to an online format as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak in March, the Graduate School quickly pivoted to preserve that tradition. They moved dissertation presentations to the online platform Zoom and made them available to the public, which for some, made presentations more accessible for family and friends.

“I think one really significant thing about these virtual ones [dissertations] is that we were able to include individuals who otherwise would not have been there,” said Max Stephenson, a professor of public and international affairs who has chaired several doctoral defenses.

For Guerra, the transition allowed her family and friends in Ecuador, her boyfriend’s family in Switzerland and Italy, and her friends and colleagues in Australia to join her advisory committee and virtual guests in Blacksburg and interact with her presentation in real time.

“At one point, I think we had 42 people [during Guerra’s presentation],” Stephenson said. “We had quite a crowd.”

Though beneficial in some ways, the quick change of formats did test the flexibility of some students, such as Neda Moayerian, who was scheduled to present just days after the announced transition.

“I had to change my presentation to some extent and the timing for some of the slides." said Moayerian, who earned a Ph.D. in planning, governance, and globalization. “The interesting thing was, I anticipated more stress, but everything went well. There was not any moment of freezing or not hearing or understanding anyone.”

Public defenses are optional in the Graduate School, but the transition to a virtual format has further highlighted some of their benefits.

“The Graduate School recommends public defenses forever, and this kind of reminds them of the value of creating a public presentation,” said Kevin Edgar, associate dean of the Graduate School.

Edgar said the vast majority of the defense had gone smoothly and that he felt the Graduate School itself would benefit from having this experience.

“Heaven knows we’ve all learned to be a little more flexible,” he said. “Learning how to use these tools better is overall going to be a big plus for all of us.”

— Written by Travis Williams