As the United States commits to social distancing in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, universities across the country have moved classes online and emptied out dorm rooms — and things are likely to get more serious. As of March 15, the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends canceling all events with more than 250 attendees to help prevent the spread of the virus. This means large events several months in the future are already being canceled, including one major event that’s hitting close to home for the class of 2020: graduation. Universities across the country are canceling commencement ceremonies, including UCLA, UC Irvine, Howard University, and all of Utah’s public colleges and universities. While the cancellations might be necessary, college seniors have a lot of mixed feelings about their canceled graduations during the coronavirus pandemic.
Brennan Doyle, 21, who is graduating with a degree in business economics and political science from UC Irvine in June 2020, found out his graduation was canceled through an online town hall meeting on March 13. The news came shortly after he found out the rest of his college career would take place online. “This is something they told us before we’d taken our finals,” he says. “All of this news is just being dropped on us.”
Who wants all their graduation pictures in medical masks if they can avoid it?
Caused by the novel coronavirus, the outbreak of the disease COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) on March 11. As of March 23, nearly 40,000 cases have been confirmed across the United States. The virus is believed to spread through close person-to-person contact, according to the CDC, and people are advised to practice “social distancing” and maintain a minimum distance of 6 feet from others. Large group events are particularly risky, since the CDC warns some people may be asymptomatic, meaning they may not even know they have the virus but can spread it to others. Since college students are typically in close contact in classrooms and dorms, an outbreak on a college campus could spread rapidly. On March 10, many colleges around the country began shuttering campuses and moving classes online. UC Irvine, where Doyle is enrolled, went digital on March 10.
Even if some universities do go forward with graduation ceremonies, many students may not be able to attend due to concern for their own health. Stephanie Helin, 29, a business administration major and senior at Central Penn College, hasn’t decided whether she plans to attend her undergraduate commencement ceremony, which has been postponed until September. “Personally, I'm torn,” she says. “I'm high risk for COVID-19, so if they do go through with graduation as planned, I'm not sure what I’ll be doing.”
Helin has liver disease and adrenal insufficiency, which weakens her immune system. Even though she has medical masks, wearing them to graduation isn’t her first choice. “As a makeup artist and just a person in general, who wants all their graduation pictures in medical masks if they can avoid it?” she says. “It’s part of being a spoonie” — someone with chronic, often invisible illnesses — “but it's just not something I planned on.”
Although students say they understand, and even agree with, the reasoning behind canceling or postponing their ceremonies, the heartbreak of missing out on graduation is undeniable. “If this is a health crisis, you have to do what you have to do,” Doyle says. The last thing he’d want, he adds, is for people to get sick because of a graduation ceremony. Although Doyle says he would attend his graduation if the university reinstated it, he worries about his grandmother attending, given that older adults are at increased risk from the coronavirus. “I don’t think I would want her to come [to graduation],” he says, because of the chance she might contract the virus. “I don’t want her to leave her house for a long time.”
I have dedicated so much to this piece of paper and toss of a hat, and I just wanted that toss really badly.
Experts agree. Karen Levy, Ph.D, MPH, an environmental microbiologist and epidemiologist and associate professor of environmental health at Emory University, previously told Elite Daily, “Because people without symptoms can still transmit the virus, it is important for everyone to practice social distancing. ... Everyone should ask themselves not whether they personally feel at risk of getting sick, but how would [they] feel if they accidentally transmitted the virus to someone else."
Still, students say the realization they likely won’t be able to walk at graduation is devastating. “I hadn't truly understood how important the graduation ceremony was to me until the idea of it being taken away was brought [up],” Helin says. “While undergrad is the first milestone for me, it's a momentous one. It's something I was told I couldn't do.”
Helin had a difficult journey on the way to her college degree. A house fire her senior year of high school derailed her education, and she didn’t start college until she was 25. Her chronic illness meant she had to juggle her studies and her health. Despite her setbacks, Helin says she didn’t realize how much this moment in the sun really meant to her. “I have dedicated so much to this piece of paper and toss of a hat, and I just wanted that toss really badly,” she says. “More so than I had realized.”
Amanda Randonis, 21, who’s graduating with a degree in computer science and information security from John Jay College in May 2020, says for her, graduation was about her pride and accomplishments. “I worked hard to get my bachelor’s degree and when I walk, it means an end to a long journey. It means a celebration, and a way to move forward,” she says. “Emotionally, I feel distraught and heartbroken not only for me, but for all the other students.” Along with other CUNY and SUNY network schools, John Jay closed its campus on March 11 and moved to online-only classes as of March 19. While, as of March 23, commencement hasn’t been officially canceled, it’s looking increasingly unlikely to happen.
Randonis was also looking forward to receiving one other thing besides her diploma. “I was excited because when I graduated my community college two years ago, I didn’t receive my yearbook in time for graduation, and at my college now I was going to get it sooner for everyone to sign,” she says. “I never had that in any of the schools I attended.”
That last class, it already happened.
It’s not just celebratory events that students will miss. When U.S. universities began moving classes online in early March, students realized they might not get a chance to see peers, friends, or teachers in person for the rest of the year. Both Randonis and Doyle expressed sadness at missing out on their final weeks of in-person classes. “I thought I would be able to say goodbye to [my teachers], or the group I’ve been working with on my senior project,” says Randonis.
Without knowing it, these students have already said their final goodbyes. “That last class, it already happened,” says Doyle. “Walking around campus and seeing people, that already happened.”
Still, celebrations can go on even without a formal graduation ceremony. “I was thinking of having my own ceremony in my backyard with my family,” Randonis says. “Maybe video chat with all my friends who are supposed to graduate, and have a virtual ceremony.” Helin also plans to take her graduation celebrations online. “With social distancing being so vital to flattening the curve, we’ll utilize online social networking to have a virtual get together instead of anything in person,” she says. Doyle plans to have a graduation party with his family come June.
In spite of her disappointment and concern for her own health as a high-risk individual, Helin is staying positive. She says people like her, with chronic illnesses and disabilities, are resilient. “We have learned how to survive in a world not made for us, and we know how to persevere, so I'm not worried.” That’s not, of course, to say she won’t be disappointed if she doesn’t ultimately get to walk. “But deep down, I know how to adapt. I'll be OK.”
If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all Elite Daily's coverage of coronavirus here.