(opinions) graduation

University Graduation and Commencement Ceremony, Dec. 20, 2019.

When the news broke that Virginia Tech had canceled commencement, I took a moment’s pause. 

Sitting perched on the wooden swivelly chair at the desk in my childhood bedroom, I reread President Sands’ message. Then, I swiped left and pressed the archive button. My inbox needed no more clutter. 

My initial reaction to the announcement was one of bland indifference. Reason, after a murmur of hesitation, prevailed; it’s not like I was entirely blindsided. We all saw this coming, to some extent, from the widespread coverage of similar actions being taken by universities across the country in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Though Virginia Tech’s official Instagram account had declared that plans for all graduation ceremonies were still in place as of last week, I suppressed a small glimmer of hope and remained steadfast in my realism. The virus would continue its rampage and it seemed only a matter of time before commencement, too, was canceled.

At least I hadn’t bought the cap and gown yet, I thought dryly, and that department store white dress practically swallowed me, anyway. I became enveloped in a mundane blanket of finality like a swaddled child. Something about being quarantined for days on end, cut off from physical contact from my friends and loved ones, had dulled my senses. Finding even the motivation to be upset felt like a chore. With everything else that has happened — classes moving to an online format, public places being shut down, the world as we know it coming to a screeching halt — I thought, “Right, this might as well fall to pieces too.” 

Now that a few days have passed, reality has sunk in, and the true weight of the consequences of this decision is heavily palpable. 

I am sorely disappointed to learn that my final semester at Tech is coming to such an abrupt end. Knowing that I will no longer be able to toss my cap in Lane Stadium, surrounded by my classmates, family and friends as we celebrate the culmination of four years’ hard work is proving itself a tough actuality to face. My heart especially goes out to my parents, who will never get to experience the pride and joy of seeing their only child graduate college.

Even harder to grapple with is the university’s idea of atonement in the form of a virtual ceremony and fall tailgate (the two-guest limit is a particularly brisk slap in the face). This attempt at making reparations for a missed once-in-a-lifetime opportunity feels lackluster and sterile, antiseptic even, like the sting of hydrogen peroxide splashing onto a deep cut. Everything we have worked toward has been swiftly reduced to a teleconference and a couple of lukewarm beers. The whole affair seems careless and uninspired.  

Graduation was all I was really looking forward to coming back from spring break. I don’t really consider myself a sentimental person. With a mindset like that, I was focused on graduating and moving forward, on to the Next Thing — the next place, the next school, the next job, the next life. All I wanted was to take some pictures and close this chapter; to celebrate the end of one era and the start of another. To say my good-byes, to pack up my apartment and to never look back. 

With all of that said, canceling commencement was irrefutably the right choice from a public health standpoint. The university officials who made this decision did so in our best interests. Even if the situation were to be contained by mid-May, sequestering thousands of people in one densely populated venue would allow the virus to fester and rapidly accelerate the rate of transmission. 

I think we can all agree that it really sucks missing out on a proper graduation. Yet being robbed of ceremonial niceties is only a small knot in a long string of disappointments we will all face at some point in our lives. The sadness we feel right now is transient, and pales in comparison with the long-term effects of jeopardizing the livelihood of an entire community. 

It helps to put things into a perspective a little bit. Think of your grandparents, your aunts and uncles, siblings and cousins that may be terminally ill or otherwise immunocompromised and therefore more vulnerable to the disease. Think of the locals whose shops, bars and restaurants you may frequent and how the gathering of so many new, potentially infected people in one place may affect them. Now more than ever, we must embody the true spirit of Ut Prosim and put the wellbeing of our friends and neighbors over our own temporary unhappiness. 

We may not get to walk across a gleaming stage, but life will continue all around us. Our diplomas will arrive neat and tidy in the mail as always. We will pick out pretty, polished frames that will sit on our bedroom floor and collect dust as we decide where to hang them, just like every class before us. We will start graduate programs and jobs. We will go on. We must go on.

The COVID-19 crisis and ensuing aftermath will endure in the hearts and minds of everyone on this planet. Not a single soul will remain impermeable to the pain, suffering and destruction the pandemic leaves in its wake. 

Right now, it feels like coronavirus is ruining our lives; as students, we are at the epicenter of its social effects. But that we no longer get to celebrate our accomplishments does not necessarily render them worthless or insignificant. We have done and will continue to do great things. We are future doctors, engineers, teachers, lawyers, writers, artists and scientists who represent some of the most prolific minds of our generation. Not getting an official ceremony does not change that. 

Consider this: How many unexpected things, good or bad, besides losing out on commencement have happened to you in your four years here? Because the more I think about it, things never really go according to plan. Yeah, I never expected a global pandemic to swoop in and steal the highlight of undergrad away from me. I also never expected to graduate with honors, question my entire future career or fall in love at the age of 21, but all of those things happened. This is just another unexpected event, and this, too, will pass. We must embrace it, come to terms with it and move forward together. 

So to the class of 2020, stay gold. More importantly, stay safe, stay healthy and stay hopeful. I offer you the heartiest of congratulations and wish you all the best of luck going forward. 

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