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Graduating During a Pandemic

Those of you who may know me or whom have read my previous post, know that I was a senior in college when the COVID-19 Pandemic shut down the state of Pennsylvania.

I don’t want his post to be another sob story and really, I feel as though I have already said my piece about missing out on the last part of my senior year. Rather, I want this post to be uplifting and a part of my acceptance of my circumstances. I want to share how my friends, family and I made the most of safely celebrating my collegiate achievements, as well as the achievements of my younger sister, Kennedy, who graduated high school at the same time as I did college.

When my school shut down in March and we moved to online instruction, the biggest question for the seniors, other than what the heck is our world coming to, was what would be happening with graduation. Susquehanna prides itself on going above and beyond for its students in general, but that is showcased during the days leading up to graduation when the school sponsors a “Senior Week” planned in part by a committee of students. During this week, there are organized events and activities like a hike, a brewery tour, a vineyard tour, and a formal. Then at the end of the week, graduation is held. Instead of immediately cancelling this week’s events and graduation, Susquehanna sent out a survey about what the students might want to do about graduation. The options were: 1. A Virtual Ceremony 2. An In-Person Ceremony or 3. Both

With the information they collected, a statement was released saying that there would be a small virtual degree conferral ceremony and that the in person ceremony would be rescheduled for August 9th with a small “Senior Weekend” leading up to the graduation ceremony.

As a student watching all of my friends from other schools get different versions of online graduation ceremonies, I was over the moon that MY school wouldn’t be giving up and that they would continue fighting for my class to have a graduation ceremony.

I had to move out of my dorm on the day the degree conferral video was released online. Barely making it back home in time, I sat in front of my computer in my sweaty move out clothes, anxiously awaiting this first momentous occasion. The video was a whopping five minutes long. The sound lagged, so the video did not match up with it. And as my name scrolled across the screen in a sea of other names my parents popped their heads in the room and gave a small clearly exhausted cheer. My brother gave me a fist bump. Just like that I was an alumni.

As the weeks of quarantine dragged on and Pennsylvania battled in its state government to find a safe way to get things back to normal, an in person ceremony at school began to seem less and less likely. The school though would not comment explicitly on the matter. SU even went so far as to send out a senior weekend registration form. I signed up for the events I knew I would want to participate in: food trucks on academic avenue, happy hour with the University President, a formal and then, of course, graduation. I noted that I wanted to room with my boyfriend, Nick, and that I would have 4 guests attending graduation, My parents and my siblings, Jackson and Kennedy. The form being sent out seemed a sign of hope to me, that despite the surrounding misery at the state of the country, Susquehanna was going above and beyond to make sure the class of 2020 got to celebrate the previous three years. Just a week after the form was sent out, the president issued a statement saying that in their opinion, and in following the CDC guidelines, hosting an in-person graduation ceremony would be an impossibility. The next line in the statement read, “We will continue to work with student leadership from the class of 2020 as we develop future plans and update you when we know more.”

If I am honest with myself, I never really expected to be back on campus for this Senior Weekend, but it certainly was a beacon of hope during an overwhelmingly disappointing time. I knew that that even though the state was headed towards the “Green Phase”, that still didn’t mean that a gathering of a minimum of 1,500 people would be permitted. I completely understood the need to move away from an in person ceremony. Though the fact that there were no alternate plans for the celebration of the Class of 2020 was another blow of disappointment, to say the least.

It is now almost a month after that announcement was made by the university president and there has still been no further update. I am still not surprised. There is so much uncertainty with the future of the current students at the university, I can understand the priority shifting to getting ready for the next school year, instead of dwelling on a way to celebrate the past. I am still coming to terms with the fact that I will not be among those students returning to campus in the fall. I still feel like I have so much unfinished business. And yet the reality of the situation is that I am an alum.

Instead of a graduation ceremony which would have been one big moment, the celebration of my accomplishments which include, working on over 22 University Theatre Productions, two Creative Writing Department Readings, and graduating Summa Cum Laude, have been stretched out over the past few months. While I am disappointed in the way that the last few years of my life ended, my friends and family have found ways to make this time in our lives special despite the unprecedented circumstances…

Making Home Special

On my last day of online classes back in the beginning of May, after returning from a much-needed trip to the beer distributor with my dad, I came home to a burlap 2020 banner on the front door. I smiled as I entered and saw another reading “We are so proud of you” hanging on the back windows in the kitchen. I turned into the dining room to thank my mom for the decorations and I saw yet another sign hanging in that room’s windows reading “Congratulations Class of 2020”. I felt like I was going to cry. I hugged my mom and thanked her. “I thought they were cute!” my mom said through a smile that only a proud mom can produce. My diploma came in the mail a few weeks later and the signs were still hanging proudly. I took this picture and the moment was made special.

Diploma Photoshoot In Valley Forge Park

After receiving my diploma, along with my cap, my sash commemorating my trip abroad to the Czech Republic, and my Senior Champion Chords, I suggested to my parents that we have Nick over to celebrate our graduation. We would eat and socialize outside in order to maintain proper social distancing guidelines, though at the time Nick and I had made the choice to limit our contact with others so that we could safely be in closer to each other.

In preparation for Nick’s arrival, we cleaned the first floor of my house and the hall bathroom. My mom hung a sign on the door that said “Please do not use! Cleaned for Nick :)”. We hung the previously mentioned burlap banners on bushes around our back patio and set up cornhole in the driveway, fully equipped with an appetizer table where Nick had his own plate separate from the Niness family plate. We even collected the branches and sticks in the yard and set up the fire bowl in the backyard for an after-dinner bonfire.

At the last minute before Nick left to head over to our house, my mom suggested that Nick bring his cap and diploma to do a quick photoshoot at Valley Forge Park since it was starting to look like we might not get to take any on-campus graduation pictures. So when Nick arrived, we drove over to the park to snap a few shots of the two of us with our mortarboards and degrees. That night was the first time that I really felt like I was able to acknowledge this status change in my life.

Decorating My Cap Anyway

Another way I found to celebrate and commemorate my time as a Susquehanna student, though I did not get to complete this task before my photoshoot in the park, was to decorate my cap. Though I know that I will not get to wear it as I cross a stage to graduate, I still felt as though it was an important rite of passage.

I knew even before the pandemic befell our lives, that I would be receiving my cap separate from the rest of my graduation attire because I had splurged and purchased a cap that I could decorate. I had been compiling inspirational pictures in a Pinterest board for almost a year when the order form dinged in my inbox.

Now that I had received it in the mail and it had been sitting on my desk undecorated for almost two months, I felt like it was finally time to put something together. I had no idea what I wanted to put on it for the longest time—my Pinterest board was evidence enough of that. But one day as I was cleaning up the pictures on my computer I had an idea…

It’s a tradition in the Susquehanna University Theatre Department to get back stage pictures on the steps leading up to the back stage crossover and as such, I had pictures from just about every show I was involved in, all in the same location. As I was scrolling through my computer and seeing them all, I had a thought: Couldn’t I just go back and take one more picture? Just like that I had an idea for my cap. I would make a collage with all of my favorite stair pictures and pair it with that thought. It would perfectly capture both my college experience and my feelings about graduating this way. It was perfect, and I think it came out pretty well if I do say so myself.

Kennedy's Graduation Party

As I mentioned, my younger sister Kennedy also graduated this spring, but from Conestoga High School. As such, she also missed out on a lot of special senior year moments and rites of passage: her prom, her last day of school event called Snow Day in May, and of course her graduation ceremony. My parents were planning on giving her a joint-graduation party with one of her best friends, our neighbor, Maddie. They hadn’t picked a date when the Pandemic hit and so they understandably wanted to wait things out. Once Pennsylvania was projected to enter the “Green Phase” though, they started planning an all outdoor social distance-safe DIY grad party. The moms created a Pinterest board to get inspiration and asked that I help with creating some banners and lettering the food labels. The event would be catered and the food pre-packaged into individual servings. There would be hand sanitizers on every table and at the food and drink areas. A photo area was set up with a polaroid camera table and a reimagined palate backdrop. Guests would be asked to bring masks and only attend if they were comfortable doing so.

In the end only about 80 people showed up and not all at the same time. A lot of people declined in order to keep their distance from others but the event was certainly a special moment for the girls and their friends. I was glad to have been a part of making their moment special and in a way, the party also helped me get just a little more closure, even though the focus was not at all on me. Just having a gathering to look forward to was special.

I hope that in sharing these moments with you, I will gain a bit more closure. But more so, I hope that I can give those of you who might know someone who had their graduation disrupted, some ideas about how to still make them feel as though their accomplishments are special. It is important to acknowledge and celebrate life’s milestones. Though it may not be in the way we hope, a small celebration and acknowledgement is better than none and coming from a recent graduate, any amount of acknowledgement will be appreciated.



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