Georgia Gerber, 18, a senior at Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles, is one such student who will not be able to walk across a stage this summer to collect her diploma while her proud parents snap photos.
Though she will technically graduate on June 5, Gerber says she feels no closure without the milestone moment provided by a formal ceremony. "It doesn't feel like it's over, if that makes sense," says Gerber. "I got my graduation photo and was like, 'Who is that, and why is she wearing that?'"
This feeling is compounded by the fact that she and her classmates didn't get an opportunity to wind down their high school careers in a typical fashion, with yearbook signings, luncheons, or prom. "Every other year, all the seniors on their last day of school dress up in tropical outfits and jump in the pool at the end of the school day," she says. "Whereas [on my last day] it was just, 'Okay, time to go home,' and then, 'Oh, you're never coming back.'"
"Some part of me still believes that it's all going to happen."
Sadness is one way to describe what Gerber is feeling, but she's also in a bit of denial, she says. "Some part of me still believes that it's all going to happen, just because it's something that I've looked forward to my whole high school experience, putting on a prom dress and going to prom or putting on a cap and gown and getting my high school diploma—just having these crucial moments to signify the end of a chapter in my life," she says.
Harvard-Westlake recently polled its senior class to gauge interest for in-person ceremony someday and she, like most of her peers, voted "yes." One idea being floated is to have this year's graduates return after their freshman year of college and walk with next year's class, the class of 2021. This could be better than nothing, but it could also be jolting, returning to high school after the life-changing experience of a first year at university.
That is, if these students even get to move into the dorms for their freshman year of college. Gerber is slated to attend Wesleyan University, where the fate of the fall semester—and beyond—is uncertain. When I ask her if she feels at all relieved by the prospect of staying with her parents for another semester of school—stepping into adulthood can be daunting, after all—she leans heavily toward "no," with a caveat. "Every teenage kid is probably ready to have a fresh start, and because my middle school and high school are in the same school, I've been in the same place since seventh grade," she says. "On the other hand, I don't know if I feel super ready to go to college, just because high school feels so unfinished."
"I called my mom, and I cried as I said, 'I really wish that you'd be able to see this.'"
Meanwhile, those poised to graduate from college find themselves in a similar boat with arguably higher stakes. Josee Jean Matela, 21, a senior in the College of Communication at Boston University, will be the first person in her family to graduate from college. But BU's 2020 graduation ceremony has been postponed to an unknown date. "I called my mom, and I cried as I said, 'I really wish that you'd be able to see this,'" she says. "I saw this constant grief around me because canceled, postponed, or virtual graduation was a loss for many."
To help commemorate the occasion for others like herself while adhering to social distancing guidelines, Matela created a platform where first-generation graduates can share their stories. "It's a digital yearbook where first gens from all over the country who are in their senior year or graduating can celebrate their accomplishments, their triumphs over adversity, their communities, and their families," she says. "It's a place for people to find togetherness."
Matela's efforts might bear unexpected fruit for some of her peers, too. Recently, a recruiter posted her platform on LinkedIn with a note urging people to hire from among the ranks of the first-gen students featured. Given that college students are graduating into an exceptionally grim job market, any amount of extra exposure is beneficial to their prospects.
To this end, Matela speaks mainly of uncertainty. She and her peers have no idea what to do next, because they have no idea what's going to happen with the pandemic, regulations, and the economy. Should they move in with their parents (if they haven't already through shelter-in-place orders) and try to find work near those homes? Should they try to look for jobs now, despite the fact that millions are now out of work and it seems unlikely there is any availability? How will they stay afloat in the interim given that they can't work retail or hospitality jobs? What about their student loans?
In the midst of all of this stress, Matela reminds me that her classwork continues. "Writing a 50-page paper during a such weirdness kind of just feels off," she says. "I know a lot of students have been struggling with keeping up with everything and being able to be productive when a lot is going on."
Graduate students at the end of their schooling face similar struggles to their undergraduate counterparts, too. It's one thing to miss out on a 2020 graduation ceremony, but being robbed of the end-of-program networking opportunities—a huge draw for many who choose to pursue advanced degrees—is another, more damaging side effect of the pandemic.
"When I graduate in May, I'm not sure that I'll feel I've truly earned that moment—and it's massively disappointing."
"This semester is supposed to be all about working closely with my advisor, making connections with the other artists in my program, meeting editors and agents at school-held events, and honing my skills in various master classes," says a 24-year-old student completing her MFA in Fiction at The New School who asked to remain anonymous. "Because of COVID-19, The New School has postponed or canceled about 50 percent of these events while the rest have been moved online." In some ways, she says it has somewhat defeated the purpose of signing up for the MFA program to begin with. "I wanted a community that pushed and challenged me creatively—the school is trying its hardest to emulate the real-life experience with the digital, but it's definitely imperfect," she says. "When I graduate in May, I'm not sure that I'll feel I've truly earned that moment—and it's massively disappointing."
"Traditions like a graduation ceremony are a chance to have their work recognized and celebrated by people they care about."
The plight of graduates may seem trivial when compared to the greater woes of the modern world, but that doesn't mean experiencing grief around missing milestones is petty. "Students have been brought up to believe that if they act a certain way, there will be certain rewards," says clinical therapist Aimee Daramus, PsyD. "Traditions like a graduation ceremony are a chance to have their work recognized and celebrated by people they care about, so 2020 graduates may feel lost, betrayed or victimized because they had every reason to expect celebration of everything they've done."
The uncertainty posed by this pandemic may feel even more unsettling for the student population than for others. "It's realistic to feel sense of loss because of everything that changed in such a short amount of time," says Dr. Daramus. "The whole thing is a bit Wizard of Oz, and they're at the point where Dorothy is in her house being spun around by the tornado not knowing if she's ever going to get safely back home."
For some students, it will help to be honest about feeling cheated. "With people dying, it might seem selfish to be upset that you didn't get a ceremony or a party, but it's not," says Dr. Daramus. "That's something that was promised to them by tradition and they're allowed to feel bad that it was taken from them as long—as they keep moving forward and don't get stuck in that head space so long that it holds them back."
For her part, Matela agrees. "If college students are having a really rough time, it's important their anxieties aren't being invalidated simply because there's other stuff going on," she says. "No matter how you're feeling in this period, it's valid."
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