Pandemic Perspectives: Graduating Students

Transitioning out of college and into the real world is a challenge on its own. Now, the USF class of 2020 has to graduate into a pandemic. 

Seven weeks ago, before the shelter-in-place order went into effect in San Francisco, the students of the class of 2020 were preparing to embark on different paths of life, but all were waiting to celebrate their hard work with the end of the year ceremonies. 

On April 15, students received an email announcing that the commencement ceremonies would be postponed. The email included information about “Mark the Day” celebrations, which will encourage students to celebrate on the day of their originally scheduled commencements. Graduating students will receive their caps and gowns by mail and will be encouraged to share pictures on social media platforms. 

No alternate commencement date was specified, but students were assured that they would be celebrated on campus. “As soon as it is safe to do so, USF will invite the Class of 2020 to return to campus — in person — to be celebrated,” President Paul Fitzgerald said in the email. 

“It comes in waves of realization, but it’s also comforting to know you’re not the only person going through this,” said Emily Garcia, a graduating sociology major. “It’s not just USF, it’s the entire country and the entire globe. Everyone is feeling that way, and I think that erases any kind of jealousy seeing other people’s graduations… because no one is graduating.” 

Garcia was looking forward to celebratory trips and spending time with friends, but instead, she has moved back home to Southern California. She had planned to take a gap year, then look into jobs in media production. But now, she questions her ability to do so, as well as whether or not circumstances will be safe. She said that the pandemic also places limits on post-graduation plans, emphasizing those who are ready to join the full-time workforce.  

“Not only are seniors handling a pandemic and sheltering in place, but also worrying about the after–undergrad life, and that’s another added stress and pressure,” said Jodie Sung, a senior kinesiology major. “It’s especially gonna be hard for us seniors and a big worry will be the finances and getting a job.”

Sung also said she wishes her senior year did not get cut off so abruptly. She reflected on what would have been a proper farewell to peers, in addition to dinners with the faculty in her department which would have provided closure. Nevertheless, Sung said she remains motivated to finish strong thanks to her professors. 

“They have been fantastic,” Sung said. “I couldn’t thank them more for making classes easier. And if anything, that does feel like some closure, and I can end the semester on a good note.” 

As some students have found a sense of closure, not all have faced the same realities as they move back home. After having to leave USF, some find that their homes are not the ideal environments to finish the semester in.

For Dalia Barrientos, a sociology major in the Dual Degree in Teacher Preparation program, work has been piling up and, at times, she said she feels unmotivated. She does not have an optimal working space at home, nor does she have the same resources she had on campus.

Barrientos has had her commencement date — May 15 — memorized since her freshman year. As a first-generation student, celebrating the completion of her undergraduate studies was a dream. While she feels the loss of a commencement ceremony, she understands that it is not the biggest concern right now. 

“This obviously […] sucks,” Barrientos said. “Especially being first-gen, this is what we’ve been working towards for so long, so having that taken away and it feels like another thing going against us. But this doesn’t take away from all the work first-gen students have put in. This doesn’t take away from the achievement and accomplishment, as much as it feels like it does. We still [put in the work], we’re still [putting in the work].” 

Feelings of loss and a desire for closure have been common themes among seniors. I, too, am experiencing many of these feelings. Seven weeks ago, I was taking a midterm and, without knowing it, I sat in a classroom as an undergraduate student for the last time. And although I know a ceremony will come when it is safe to hold one and our hard work will still be celebrated, I cannot help but feel conflicted. 

As a first-generation student, finishing my time as an undergraduate student was more than an accomplishment for me — it was an homage to my parents, for all their hard work that shaped me into the student I became. It was for all the teachers and professionals who have supported me, from the ones who taught my ESL (English as a Second Language) classes through middle school, the ones who were there during my awkward teenage phases, and those who fostered great discussion in my college classrooms.

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