COLUMN: Graduating when the future is a true unknown



FILE- In this May 5, 2018, file photo, students attend the University of Toledo commencement ceremony in Toledo, Ohio. Colleges across the U.S. have begun cancelling and curtailing spring graduation events amid fears that the new coronavirus will not have subsided before the stretch of April and May when schools typically invite thousands of visitors to campus to honor graduating seniors.

The moment has come, finally. After years of hard work, determination and discovery, college graduation has finally appeared and the future awaits. 

The world was supposed to be a great unknown that was full of promise and hope, but recent events have made the unknown far more fearful than any soon to be graduate thought it would be.

Sitting in history class at 10:52 in the morning, I received an email from my dream graduate school in New York City.

I got in. 

I cried as if I had stubbed my big toe on the corner of my bed. But no, the tears streamed down my face as my future shined bright in my eyes with a smile on my face.

I was no longer in history class. I was in my studio apartment in New York, cooking a box of mac and cheese on my tiny stove while doing homework or at least pretending to. I had made it. 

Joyful tears quickly turned sad as the coronavirus began to ruin plans. 

The coronavirus has hit the world hard, with 374,329 confirmed cases in the United States thus far as of April 7 and over 1.3 million worldwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It seems as though the world has been shut down. Restaurants, bars, coffee shops, nightlife, public spaces – all closed. 

Amidst this, graduating seniors are facing losses that years of hard work had built up to. Plans for what comes next in life have shattered for many, with no repairs in sight. The excitement of being done with college has almost been eliminated because the future has started to escape us.

Kendal Charnota, 22, is graduating this Spring with a degree in public relations and advertising and event planning from DePaul University. Currently, she has a full-time internship, but doesn’t know if a job offer is coming. 

“At this point, I don’t know how the coronavirus will affect my ability to get a job right out of school, but it adds a significant level of stress on the plate of those rounding out their senior year,” Charnota said. 

One by one, events began to cancel. Many students held on to hope that their last bit of college could still be grand. Last spring break vacation, boosting your GPA one last time, spending time with friends and walking across that stage in front of loved ones. 

Alicia Goluszka | The DePaulia

That list turned into bullet points and has made its way to a blank page of uncertainty. 

One major event on the list was graduation. As COVID-19 continued to spread at rapid rates, large gatherings began to close and the long awaited email about commencement began hitting the inboxes of excited seniors. 

DePaul sent out an email on March 27, stating that traditional in-person ceremonies were cancelled and virtual ceremonies would instead be taking place. This caused an uproar amongst seniors at DePaul and a petition was created to have graduation postponed instead of being done virtually.

“I am no longer excited to graduate for any reason other than having less on my plate,” Charnota said. “An entire list of lasts has been taken away from the class of 2020 because of COVID-19.” 

Although many of the seniors were devastated, myself included, DePaul believes it was the best decision. 

“These are unprecedented times so there is no perfect way to handle this situation,” Charnota said. “But it felt that there was a lack of sensitivity from DePaul. As a student body, we have no outlet for our frustration. We want our concerns heard, we want our opinion taken into account.”

Carol Hughes, the university spokesperson for DePaul said it was not a quick decision.

“… We didn’t feel comfortable indicating we were postponing to August if the situation hadn’t subsided because then it could be another set of disappointment,” Hughes said. “As soon as we know how this situation is settled, we’ll be able to finalize other ideas and plans.

Noah Festenstein, 22, is also graduating this Spring with a degree in broadcast journalism with a focus in radio from DePaul. Festenstein has been in college for five years and is hurt that he won’t get the chance to walk across the stage. 

“I feel like the entire narrative of graduating college is that of walking across the stage,” he said. “It’s something you envision and you set your mind towards and it’s a goal like you know, that feeling of walking across the stage is a feeling that you’ll never ever have in your life. And that’s something that i’m gonna miss out on.”

Although Festenstein won’t get that moment, he understands why DePaul chose to do a virtual graduation and thinks that is what a university’s mindset should be set towards.

I felt heartbroken. Being a first-generation college student and the first woman in my immediate family to get a degree, it was an event I have been looking forward to for the past six years.

After a tearful day, the reasons for the cancellation seemed valid and not wanting to get students’ hopes up with scheduling one in the coming months will further help shield seniors from any more disappointment. 

Stay-at-home orders have been extended in many states until the beginning of May, with no clue about what will happen after that. With each passing day, I become more fearful that my plans for after graduation will be next on the chopping block. 

“Before, it seemed that this would last a few weeks,” Charnota said. “Now there’s a good chance it will be at least another month or two before any type of normalcy is restored.”

One thing is for certain: graduating seniors still did it. What happens after may feel blurred, but the past years of hard work will not go unnoticed.