A silent graduation: how college seniors feel about their final semester

Residence halls are empty. Dining halls are cold. Classrooms are deserted. Campus is abandoned.

But last week, college seniors across the country still graduated in the midst of a nationwide pandemic. Hundreds of universities and colleges in the United States announced they would suspend in-person classes for the rest of the semester in late March due to COVID-19. And for a brief moment, some students felt a twinge of excitement knowing their classes would be online for the rest of the year. No more early mornings, no more stressful presentations, and no more walking in the cold.

College seniors however, felt disappointed and robbed of their final year of college. Because as more and more universities shut down, more and more announced virtual, postponed, or canceled graduation ceremonies. And these cancelations were only a small chunk of the effects the pandemic has had on graduating seniors.

“I found out about the remote learning while I was out of town,” says Neil Vaidya, a recent University of Cincinnati graduate with two degrees in environmental studies and sociology. “I was on a camping trip in the middle of the mountains, so when I found out about that, the shock value was high because I thought, ‘Dang I can’t even go back to college.’”

Alison Sun, an international student from China, just received her degree in journalism with a minor in fashion design from UC. She is also the first person in her family to study abroad in the United States. After campus shut down, Sun originally planned to go home and visit her family, but even if she could get past the restricted flights, she would have had to quarantine herself in a hotel for two weeks before having the chance to see them. And with cases rising at the time, Sun and her family decided it was best if she stayed in Cincinnati.

The flight restrictions and canceled graduation ceremony also changed her post-graduate plans.

“Originally, my mom and my grandma were going to come and we were going to travel a little bit,” she says. “We even booked a ticket to California but then we had to cancel everything because of the coronavirus. We were going to travel around the [United States] and then go to Japan together.”

As a fashion design minor, Sun was also preparing for UC’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning’s (DAAP) annual fashion show where she was taking classes to aid in the production of the show.

“That’s what our whole class was about and why we learned about fashion show production and the lighting,” Sun says. “We had speakers from New York come in so we could have real insight and finally do the DAAP fashion show but [it was canceled] and we can’t even do it even though we’re learning about it. We learned so much about fashion shows and we didn’t even get to produce one.”

Aside from graduation and other major events being canceled, the final semester of senior year is supposed to feel like a steady cruise to the finish line. And this semester, it was anything but that. Once colleges announced they were switching to remote learning, the year came to a sharp end as opposed to an exciting conclusion. There was a disconnect between professors and students and the lack of social interaction and communication made learning new material almost impossible.

“It felt like I wasn’t in college,” Sun says. “I feel like we’re more of college drop-outs than graduates because we didn’t do much work at the end. It’s so hard to do online classes because it’s hard to concentrate. Also a lot of my classes didn’t offer online sessions. We just did papers and I feel like I didn’t really learn a lot this semester.”

“When professors assigned homework, it felt like the homework was a lot of busy work and stuff to keep us busy at home,” Vaidya says. “That’s not really what being a second-semester senior is about. If I was a first- or second-year [student] I wouldn’t have even noticed but I felt like the classes I was in did not proportionately prepare for this and, in that sense, I felt like I wasn’t in college anymore.”

Graduating during a recession

Getting hired right after college is a difficult process that takes months of prospecting and interviews. Pairing that on top of businesses shutting down, budget cuts, and a ridiculous level of uncertainty, finding jobs as a college graduate in this climate is almost impossible.

“I already had a job lined up but they canceled the position,” Sun says. “I’m still moving to New York in July but I’m still trying to find a job there. Even if it’s remote, I want to find a job there because I want to go to [graduate] school there.”

“I’m in a weird boat because I have a job but it’s not a full-time position,” Vaidya says. “[My employer] is working on getting me a full-time position but the one drawback is that [the company] is having budget issues so the uncertainty is real. I feel like I’m holding on by a thread and it could very well just go in the other direction at any second.”

And yet, despite the stresses that have come with graduating during these unprecedented times, some have found positives from the situation and value the memories they’ve made during their college careers. And many have found their own way to celebrate their achievements while acknowledging the hard work they put in, even if they don’t get to walk across a stage.

“Friday, I went for a run through campus and I saw so many people with their parents taking pictures in front of their favorite places on campus, and I was at my favorite place on campus and I thought ‘Wow, I really don’t have any reason to come back to this place again,’” Vaidya says. “But my family and I got to spend time together and when situations like that come up we realize this is more than good enough. We don’t need a ceremony; we can just hang out with each other.”

Continued COVID-19 coverage has been supported by a grant from the Facebook Journalism Project, a program run in partnership with the Lenfest Institute for Journalism and Local Media Association.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.