The list of things that were canceled or postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic appears to be never ending. A significant portion of these events centered around an important rite of passage: the commencement of high school and university students. I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in May and was supposed to speak on behalf of my class at commencement.
But the coronavirus had other plans.
As I consider my feelings toward missing graduation, I keep hearing this voice in my head saying, “Stop complaining; people are out there dying.” I’m almost ashamed to be sad about missing out on commencement while thousands of essential workers are losing time with their families and risking their lives to keep us all safe and healthy.
I have been very fortunate over the past few months. I have a roof over my head and food in my stomach. I even have a secure job lined up despite a large amount of economic uncertainty. So, who am I to complain that I didn’t get to put on a silly-looking hat and dress to walk across a stage and take pictures? Many people voluntarily skip their college ceremonies even when there isn’t a global pandemic. If they can move on without the pomp and circumstance, then I should be able to, too, right?
It seems insignificant to have pity for myself or my classmates in comparison with all of the problems the world is facing. As I attempt to come to peace with missing out on this rite of passage, it is difficult to not be upset. But I’ve realized that it’s OK to feel this way. All of the events that were supposed to be the culmination of five years of hard work were canceled or dramatically altered without warning. That’s a big deal!
The best analogy I can compare this experience to would be rehearsing a performance for months and then not getting to show an audience. It’s like making a wonderful work of art, but you don’t get to share it with anyone. Perhaps I’m stuck on this analogy because I keep thinking back to a colloquium course I took a couple of years ago called “Theatre Anthropology.” Most of the topics focused on how we celebrate rites of passage and how these celebrations and gatherings are critical to the human experience. They impact our ability to move between phases of life and our connections with others. With this in mind, it becomes so obvious why it’s perfectly acceptable to be upset about missing commencement. There was no identifiable moment to signify that we have transitioned from student to professional. Furthermore, we couldn’t celebrate this achievement with our classmates, professors, friends, family, etc. Graduation is a big deal, and the class of 2020 earned one but didn’t get to have it.
So, who am I to complain that I didn’t get to put on a silly-looking hat and dress to walk across a stage and take pictures? Many people voluntarily skip their college ceremonies even when there isn’t a global pandemic. If they can move on without the pomp and circumstance, then I should be able to, too, right?
Another fun topic in that class was how clothing and costumes affect experiences. This means that there’s a difference between graduating in pajamas while watching a computer screen versus a cap and gown in an auditorium. But I don’t need to call on my anthropology course to point that out. It doesn’t require expert analysis to inform people that graduates are missing out on important experiences in the midst of this pandemic.
Some good things have blossomed amidst the chaos, however. Since we didn’t get to have an in-person celebration, my biomedical engineering classmates and I had a video meeting to celebrate our achievements and have a goodbye as a class. Before the stay-at-home orders were placed, we planned a big night out, like all of the classes before us. We would have had a great time, but I’m convinced that we bonded more from behind our webcams than we would have if we had just gone out to some local bars for the evening. We had a heightened appreciation for our time together since we were forced to be apart otherwise. This unique experience we are sharing has united us, emotionally, even though we had to be distant, socially.
I’m glad I was able to spend time with my classmates before we went our separate ways this summer. Sure, it would have been nice to fulfill my role as a commencement speaker in the traditional way. I could have gotten on the stage and encouraged my classmates to go out and change the world. But, honestly, I have no doubts that The University of Akron College of Engineering Class of 2020 will go on to do great things, even though I didn’t get to be one of the voices encouraging them to do so. We are engineers, after all, and ready to tackle the world’s problems — even if we didn’t get to take pictures in our caps and gowns with our mascot.