What it’s like Graduating During a Pandemic

One of the biggest moments in life is walking across the stage and shifting the tassel on your cap from right to left. This is a moment that has been robbed from the 2020 graduating class due to the pandemic. COVID-19 forced many countries to enforce a quarantine and with that, classrooms turned into virtual rooms and face to face interactions turned into profile photos. This year’s graduating class rose to the challenge of adapting to these never before seen circumstances. 

The Pandemic

With today’s obsession with technology, it seems like the transition to online classes would be a breeze. The key word here is “seems.” Although I cannot speak on the experience of this year’s high school graduates, I can only assume it was very different from that of the college graduates, such as myself. As a student who commuted to school, I was spared the 45 minutes drive to and from campus. For me, quarantine gave me extra time to sleep and finish school work. My peers, on the other hand, did not have as many perks. 

While most high school students attend a school close to their home, students in college come from all over the world for their education. When schools across the world decided to close and send their students back home to minimize the spread of COVID-19, this meant some students who returned home would be attending their classes at crazy hours due to the different time zones. For other students, it meant they were dealing with other issues such as limited resources, WiFi issues, and constant background noise from their quaran-TEAM. 

The issues were not limited to students; professors were impacted as well. While some professors easily adjusted to online classes and became flexible with their students, others — not so much. As a result, some students found the transition to online classes equivalent to having their classes transitioned into a joke. After all, where is the sense of competition when everything is open book, open web, and open everything? In my experience as a Computer Science major, aka the how-well-can-you-Google-major, I found that my classes actually became harder once we transitioned to online. We had  timed coding exams, which were essentially a mini-project. After frying 99% of our brain cells with code that is still not working, there was no in-person help or a way to cry to the TA after hours. 

The Feelings

After weeks of shedding tears, sleep deprivation, and a caffeine only diet, it all came to a sudden end. For some, hitting the submit button on Blackboard or hitting that X on the lockdown browser for the last time resulted in a wave of relief. In my case, it was the overwhelming need to catch up on sleep after studying non-stop days leading up to final exams. Upon waking up the next morning, I felt well rested, but I didn’t feel that sense of accomplishment that I was done with my undergrad. While my stress levels reduced immensely and I was genuinely happy it was over, there was that empty feeling that I wouldn’t be able to walk across stage and have my friends and family cheer me on. Instead, my version of celebrating was to finally be able to wash my ridiculously long hair and eat all three meals that day at an appropriate time. It felt like any another day, except my eyeballs weren’t glued to a screen for 14 hours. 

This year is the perfect example of the phrase, “health is wealth.” I am honestly beyond grateful to be healthy and thankful to all the frontline workers fighting this pandemic. In the grand scheme of things, it seems selfish to be complaining about 10 seconds of attention, 3 handshakes, and a single sheet of paper at commencement. Yet, it is hard to shake the feeling that our accomplishments were not going to be recognized. Some schools put together generic slideshows or promised the opportunity to walk at some unknown time in the future. As grads, we understand that everyone is trying to do their best, but after accumulating loads of debt, enduring sleepless nights and losing the initial job offers that we were once promised, it has left us slightly bitter. There was no magic date to mark on our calendars, no graduation parties, and no invitations to send out to our friends and family to watch us walk in our caps and gowns. And in my case, I didn’t even have a chance to purchase a cap and gown or white dress, not that I would need one now. 

A New Outlook

It is easy to get caught up in the gloom when it feels like the end of the world is approaching. But instead of moping around, I decided the best thing to do was to try and find something positive to focus on instead. After scrolling through social media, I saw people celebrating in so many new and creative ways. This inspired me to figure out how I could plan my own unique celebration. I started with baby steps by taking out my sister’s old graduation stuff, which she kindly let me have and decorated my new cap. It was a process that would guarantee fun: searching for Pinterest inspiration, setting up a Zoom call to get my friends to join in on craft night, and pouring excessive amounts of paint into a plastic mochi tray I was using as a makeshift palette (reduce, reuse, recycle y’all). I dedicated four long years to computer science and I wanted to make my cap to represent that. A new challenge emerged when I tried to find a creative CS graduation cap inspiration online, besides the basic “Hello World” designs. After giving up on searching for inspiration, I went with a microchip pattern since my cap was already green (Go Mason Nation!). I ended my degree with my website development exam, so I thought it was fitting to use the HTML tag for “break.” As I painted “Finally a… </br>” in black over some yellow boxes, I became content. 

The following day, I had my sister take graduation photos. As I got ready for the photoshoot, I thought about how I should have been heading over to a ceremony on campus. Yet, I did not feel the disappointment that I had been dragging around with me in the past couple of days. It took me a while to realize it, but not being able to walk across a stage does not change how much I have accomplished nor does it eliminate how proud my friends and family were of me. I think we have a fixed idea on what a celebration should look like, but a celebration is not an event. It does not have a set of rules to follow. It really just boils down to being able to share a moment with those who want to take part in your accomplishments and happiness. I am so grateful to have the opportunity to pursue a higher education in a field that taught me so many technical skills and find my drive for a new passion. My entire experience as a female in STEM led to this week of enjoying graduation and also launching this website, Female Framework. I want to see other women thriving in STEM fields and share their own experiences within this community that we are building. To me, this has been the best way to celebrate graduating, with you.

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