What It's Like to Graduate From College Right Now

What It's Like to Graduate From College Right Now

by Mary Retta

Every Thursday night, J* and her friends at Vassar would travel to a local Poughkeepsie bar for Dollar Beer Night — known affectionately by students as "DBN." Their tradition abruptly ended on Thursday March 26th, with newly enforced social distancing restrictions. Instead, J and her housemate hosted a virtual DBN over Zoom.

"Even though DBN creates a hit or miss night, I knew I'd yearn for the entertaining stories and memories that always come from it," J tells PAPER. "So my housemate and I decided that if we can't make the trek to Billy Bob's, then we'll bring it to our own living room and make it even better by only playing our music and inviting good friends. A lot of our friends came through and, more importantly, really came to dance, which brought me the most joy. Who would've ever thought that DBN could become a cathartic experience?"

J is one of millions of college seniors who are now relying on technology to make up for all of the rites of passage they've been denied due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While universities have moved classes online and even scheduled virtual commencement ceremonies, these efforts do not address the grief, stress and lack of closure that many students are experiencing.

A major source of this emotional turmoil is the sudden end of college social life. As many students were forced to evacuate their campuses unexpectedly, most did not get a chance to say goodbye to their friends or live it up during their last few months in college together.

"At one point a couple of Fridays ago, at maybe 1 AM, I started missing the pre-games so much that I FaceTimed a friend and we attempted an impromptu dance," says Michael Watters, a senior at Pomona College. "We synced playlists, put in earphones, and I danced in my kitchen to Megan Thee Stallion in some vain attempt to emulate the experience of going out."

Many important springtime activities such as Spring Fling, Senior Week, and of course commencement itself, have been canceled, and for seniors these experiences are irreplaceable. "It almost feels selfish to be upset about losing something as trivial as a ceremony," Marissa Hargrove, a senior at the University of Nevada, explains. "I try to remind myself that my feelings are valid and I'm not the only person going through it. I feel thankful that I am still able to receive my Bachelors, but it's not the happy milestone I anticipated it to be."

Social isolation has created a global loneliness epidemic, and we're all feeling the loss of regular quality time with friends and family. But whereas most know they will be able to see their loved ones as soon as shelter in place orders are lifted, many in the class of 2020 are not as certain.

"Prior to the pandemic I was excited to move in with my girlfriend and get a million rescue pets together," says G*, a senior at Bryn Mawr College. "It's a shame that now that future is uncertain. Now I'm not certain if we'll even be employed."

Not only are seniors isolated from their friends, but their professors and campuses too. Across the country, students have protested against college housing policies, grading systems, and refund strategies during the coronavirus pandemic. As COVID-19 hit the United States, colleges moved classes online and forced most students to evacuate campus. Many students argue that even though classes are continuing, they are still not receiving most of the services they paid for and expected this academic term: housing, face-to-face time with professors and access to academic buildings and resources like libraries. Despite this, most colleges have been reluctant to amend their grading policies, give proper refunds or meet most student demands. In response, some students have gone on strike from class, refused to pay tuition or rent, or have even threatened to sue their universities.

"We are entitled to compensation for the resources we are missing due to lack of studio access," reads a petition from students at the Rhode Island School of Design. "With over half the semester left, there is a potential $12,950 of tuition at stake for each student."

The greatest anxiety, of course, is what comes after that bleak virtual graduation ceremony. Seniors are graduating into an historically unprecedented, pandemic-induced recession. Already, over half of all millennials have lost a job or had hours reduced since the virus hit the United States. College students, who are inexplicably unable to receive stimulus funding, are now experiencing staggering rates of poverty and homelessnesss. Many internships and fellowships that would have led to graduate employment have also been canceled due to the pandemic. For college students and other young people who never had the opportunity to find so much as an entry point into their field of choice, finding a job today suddenly seems like an impossible task.

"I'm terrified to earn my degree in the middle of an economic recession, and who wouldn't be?" Hargrove adds. "Millions have lost their jobs and they're unemployed. It's not exactly the most ideal time to enter the professional workforce. I'm afraid that my generation will be forced to pick up the pieces of this second Great Depression."

For some in the class of 2020, the recession has served as a reality check: put those dreams of real life on hold. "As a graduate this year I am now attempting to take steps to help me financially because of the stress around the economy once this is all over," says Olivia Jarasitis, a senior at Worcester State University. "Instead of looking for a job related to my degree I am now looking to take more courses in order to go to graduate school sooner now rather than later so I am on track to be more job secure."

Many graduates are in the same position as Jarasitis: the pandemic has forced countless young people to prioritize survival over happiness or passion. Living in a time of chronic uncertainty has made it difficult for those in the class of 2020 to enjoy their present or plan ahead for their career or personal lives. Just as the lives of these college graduates were about to begin in earnest, they have been halted or even pushed backwards.

"I feel like for now, this is life after college," she concludes. "It doesn't even feel like I am in school anymore. It feels like we are adjusting to a new normal, and our lives will probably be different once the quarantine is lifted. Letting go of the expectations I had at the beginning of my senior year has made the transition a bit easier."

*Some names changed for privacy reasons