Hanna Jon Lewis thought she had more time. More time to spend with her friends and classmates, more time to enjoy senior traditions at the University of Georgia, more time before the reality of seriously applying for jobs and entering the workforce set in.
Then came coronavirus and the now-familiar series of events for members of the Class of 2020: an email announcing the closure of campuses and the decision to move classes online, followed by the dreaded update that seniors’ dreams of walking across the stage this spring would not come true.
“You’ve been looking forward to all of these last moments, and then all of a sudden it’s a realization like you’ve hit a wall,” Lewis said. “You’re like, ‘Those already happened. We’re not getting any closure. Senior year is over. My college experience is over. I’m not gonna get to graduate.’”
Lewis’ range of emotions after UGA announced the cancellation of graduation ceremonies on March 17 reflects the shock, anger and grief hitting high school and college seniors across the country in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. As the number of coronavirus cases increases day by day, the list of universities and school districts canceling milestones like graduation and prom grows longer.
The rapid pace of the pandemic has made it difficult for administrators to determine if they can postpone the ceremonies until later this year or if they will be forced to hold a virtual ceremony with no students or families physically present. At Wichita State University in Kansas, Commencement Office Director Kim Moore wrote in a statement that the university is considering a virtual commencement or postponing the ceremony to late summer, early fall or December.
Michael Brown, a senior communications major at Wichita State, said he understands the severity of the situation that led his university to cancel its original May graduation. The virus is highly contagious, which could turn commencement ceremonies into petri dishes for COVID-19.
But for first-generation students like Brown, the cancellation is an even harder pill to swallow.
“It’s different in a sense because you’re the first that your family will see graduate, which is pushing you and motivating you to finish college,” Brown said. “And now that you’ve reached the finish line, you won’t get the opportunity to walk the stage and for them to see you walk the stage. It’s been a hard reality check that I won’t get the opportunity and be the first to do it in my family.”
The high likelihood that their graduation celebrations will be canceled is also hitting high school students like Maya Chrisco, an 18-year-old senior from Icard, N.C., where the governor has closed all schools through at least May 15.
“We are all kind of scared because it’s our senior year: we want that last prom, the last experience with all of our friends, but I honestly think everything happens for a reason,” Chrisco said. Her school has not officially canceled prom or graduation. “I feel like we might get that prom or graduation later on, but it really does hurt because we’ve been in school for 12 years waiting for this moment and we might not get it.”
The sense that they are being robbed of a rite of passage has motivated many students to speak out and push administrators to find a way to host rescheduled graduation ceremonies. At the University of California, Los Angeles, students were vocally opposed to the university’s original plans to cancel graduation outright and hold virtual ceremonies for the Class of 2020.
Sim Beauchamp, a senior psychology major, said she and many of her classmates were upset by UCLA’s March 18 announcement, which she called “extremely insensitive.”
“I would have hoped that the admin at UCLA really took into consideration how my class felt about the possibility of our graduation being virtual — whatever that means — and missing out on one of the most momentous occasions of our lives,” Beauchamp said. “But in their initial email, all they said was ‘the day does not define the journey,’ which to me and my peers seemed extremely patronizing and insensitive because for so many students that day does define the journey.”
Within a day of the original cancellation, UCLA Chancellor Gene Block issued an apology and vowed to include student input in future plans for graduation ceremonies. The university is surveying seniors about their preferences for having the ceremony virtually or rescheduling it for some time in the next year.
Beauchamp is hopeful that she and her peers will get the graduation ceremony that generations of UCLA alumni have experienced.
“I think it’s important to have a real ceremony because it’s a day that validates the innumerable hours of blood, sweat and tears that we have all put into our education,” Beauchamp said. “It’s something that deserves more than a second of screen time.”
Some universities, like Vanderbilt University, have already announced their intention to hold a ceremony next year. Others, including American University, will host a virtual celebration in May and invite the spring graduating class to a special commencement in December.
Lewis, the UGA senior and marketing major, is still holding out for a physical graduation ceremony. Shortly after University President Jere Morehead announced the cancellation, Lewis started a petition pleading with administrators to consider holding the ceremony later this year. Within days, the petition earned more than 20,000 signatures from concerned students, families and alumni.
Since the petition gained traction, Lewis has spoken with administrators and now believes they made the right call amid a set of difficult choices. The school did not want to be caught in a cycle of scheduling and rescheduling, and is waiting to see if the pandemic will slow before they announce any further changes, she said.
“They are in a really uncomfortable position as well where they don’t really know what to do because they don’t know how the situation is going to progress,” Lewis said. “And I think I’ve come to terms with the fact that it might just be that we don’t get a college graduation, and it just happens that it’s a loss we have to take. Everyone around the world and around the country is in the same exact position.”
Students are already looking toward what comes next after they complete their senior years. The coronavirus pandemic has confirmed Chrisco’s aspirations to become a nurse so that she can “help people when they’re sick.” Brown plans to start a communications job with a nonprofit that will take him away from Kansas, making him unsure if he will be able to attend a rescheduled ceremony.
Meanwhile, Beauchamp and Lewis are facing down the unstable job market that awaits the Class of 2020, which is finding solidarity in its shared uncertainty. Lewis sees similarities between current seniors and the 1944 graduating class at The Citadel, a military college in South Carolina, where almost the entire class was prevented from graduating because they were all drafted in 1943 to serve in World War II.
“They’re considered ‘the class that never was’ because they never graduated from college together,” Lewis said. “The times were different and it was a very different circumstance, but still, they faced a different struggle than everyone else … This is bringing people closer together because of that shared experience and shared loss.”