Just weeks before the coronavirus canceled my college graduation from George Washington University, I was packing for my final college spring break. In lieu of a typical senior trip to an over-crowded beach in Miami, my friends and I had planned to take a low-key trip to the West Coast, stopping in Seattle and Los Angeles. We were looking forward to hiking scenic routes, sightseeing around L.A. and spending quality time with one another. With only a few months left before graduation in May, we knew our dwindling time together was precious, and we wanted to make the most of it.
Unfortunately, we hardly had the chance to do so—and the same can be said for college seniors all across the country. In what felt like the blink of an eye, Seattle became the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. I obsessively checked CNN’s live updates, receiving frantic phone calls from my parents urging me to rethink my plans. It wasn’t safe to travel—let alone to visit the area that boasted the most cases of a new and dangerous disease.
With that, my final spring break was a no-go, and if I’d thought that would be the end of my worries, I was wrong. Harvard started trending on Twitter when the prestigious school told students to pack up and move out, a decision that seemed somewhat drastic at the time. Then, one after the other, colleges and universities in every state began to transition classes online.
As my friends and I attempted to process the loss of our spring break, we received an email that dramatically altered the remainder of our senior year. Classes were to be moved online, and all in-person activities and events were suspended, to later be canceled entirely. We, the students, were told to go home and bring with us our personal necessities, in the event that we would be “unable to return to campus for a substantial period of time,” according to the email. Talk about foreshadowing.
I was flooded with mixed emotions. Admittedly, I was relieved that a decision had been made, and we were no longer unsure about our daily routines. I had felt anxious going to class in the weeks prior, and it was impossible to focus on a lecture while fearing that myself or one of my peers could be a silent carrier, unknowingly spreading the virus to others. Initially we were told that young people with no pre-existing health conditions were relatively safe. However, I now know that generalizations like this don’t apply to everyone, and that all people are at risk when a powerful virus is spreading.
Transitioning to virtual learning was a crucial step in preventing the spread of the virus on campus. The health of students, faculty and staff needed to be kept at the forefront of the university’s concerns. Personally, I didn’t mind the idea of leaving my off-campus apartment to retreat to my parents’ home in Connecticut, which felt like a much safer place to be. I felt grateful that I had a place to go, an option I knew wasn’t an option readily available to all my peers at school.
At the same time, I also felt extremely sad and nostalgic. I simply hadn’t been ready for my senior year to end. There was still so much I was looking forward to: I wanted more movie nights with my friends, stuffing our faces with gooey chocolate chip cookies. I wanted more date nights spent binge-watching The Office with my boyfriend. I wanted more time with my incredible coworkers at my on-campus job, where I worked for all four years of college. I felt robbed of these simple moments of collegiate bliss, the ones I had felt sure that there would more of in my final months on campus.
Above all, I was devastated to learn that I would have no in-person graduation ceremony to celebrate my four years of hard work. Just a few weeks after I returned home and started online classes, I received the unfortunate news that Commencement had been canceled and replaced with a virtual ceremony. We, the Class of 2020, were invited to join the Class of 2021 next spring, but it wouldn’t quite be the same. While I was disappointed, I knew that this was just one of the many difficult decisions my university board had to make given these unprecedented circumstances. They were doing the best they could.
Still, I yearned for the ceremony I’d daydreamed about during hard study sessions or particularly slow lectures. I wanted to put on my navy blue cap and gown and graduate on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Over the years, I’ve heard alumni rave about the incredible feeling of graduating on the Mall, surrounded by breathtaking views of the Washington Monument, The White House, Lincoln Memorial and U.S. Capitol Building. When something like that is taken away from you, it makes you want it even more.
I knew my peers were also struggling with the news, but for me, graduation held an even deeper meaning. My mother never went to college; she was married as soon as she finished high school at age 18. Because of this, she’s looked forward to my graduation since I was a little girl. My siblings and I—as a triplet, I am one of three graduating in 2020—had always wanted to walk across the stage and accept our diplomas for her.
During my time in quarantine since returning home from school, I’ve learned a few lessons that I know will transform the way I live in a post-pandemic world. First, I know now that it’s okay to slow down and take it easy. For the last four years I’ve worked nonstop, juggling school, extracurriculars, multiple internships and various freelance writing gigs. We all deserve to take time for ourselves, and knowing I’ll have a mental and physical break once I’ve completed my online classes is comforting.
Second, I’d had to accept that no matter how much I plan, sometimes things will change. Did I think I would have a full-time job offer by now? Yes. A global pandemic was definitely not in my four year plan. But as jobs I’ve applied to reach out to let me know the positions no longer exist, I can do nothing but move forward and accept that I cannot control everything.
Last but not least, I’ve learned the importance of putting my life into perspective. Amidst a global health crisis, missing out on college graduation seems like a tiny thing, especially in comparison to the struggles that so many others are facing. Because of this, I wasn’t sure at first how upset I should allow myself to feel. I didn’t want to be insensitive, but I was hurt and disappointed to my core.
Ultimately, I came to the decision that I could be upset about the things I lost while recognizing all the things that I haven’t lost—things that, unfortunately, many others have. I did not lose my health, a job, my loved ones. I did not lose the ability to tightly hug my family members, some of whom who are risking their lives on the frontlines. I will not walk at an in-person graduation ceremony on the National Mall, but I am still graduating, and my years of hard work have not been erased.
With this in mind, I will make the most of virtual hangouts with my friends, and celebrate my graduation at home with the person most excited about my achievement: my mother. I can adapt to these changing times and make the most of them as I figure out my next steps. If I can’t plan for the future, then I’ll truly live in the present.
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