Photograph by Nina Berman, NOOR/Redux
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Universites around the U.S.—including Columbia University—closed their doors due to the coronavirus pandemic. Realizing they wouldn’t have a graduation ceremony, some students donned their preordered regalia to perform an ad hoc graduation.

Photograph by Nina Berman, NOOR/Redux

Without ceremony, new college grads step into an uncertain workforce

From first-generation scholars helping to support their families to first-time nurses jumping into pandemic-stricken hospitals, these students face a graduation like no other.

It was 11 p.m. on a Friday night in March when I drove to New Jersey to bring my brother home from college. It felt like an evacuation mission, of sorts; two days earlier, Princeton University students had been told not to return once they’d left campus for spring break. That’s when the goodbyes began.

By the time I got there, the campus was already half-empty; the few students who shuffled by looked dazed, many of their eyes bleary from so much crying. As I helped my brother hoist his bicycle onto the back of our car, a handful of friends solemnly gathered around. “I’ve just gotta hug you,” one senior said to another as they parted, making an exception to the new social-distancing rules because they had no idea when they’d see each other next.

I couldn’t help but think that this was not how it was supposed to be. Everywhere I looked, I was reminded of my own goodbyes on that very same campus just nine months earlier, when I was graduating. I have fond memories of long walks with friends on warm spring nights, talking about the future and all that lay ahead of us; of the singalongs that filled our dorm rooms long after our final assignments had been turned in; of brilliantly sunny commencement celebrations filled with family and friends. For us, the Class of 2019, these hallmark emotional moments lasted nearly two months. The Princeton Class of 2020 had to fit them all into two days.

And then, almost immediately, everything went virtual. Isolation set in.

As colleges around the country wrap up mostly-digital spring semesters, the transition to distance learning has caused displacement and difficulty. It’s been more challenging for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, for reasons ranging from a lack of reliable technology to greater responsibilities back home. International students faced returning to countries plagued by virus or violence—and by leaving, they risk not being allowed back in. And the few students who were granted permission to stay in their dorm rooms were confronted with isolation and loneliness on emptied campuses. Now, as living-room commencement ceremonies come and go, gazes shift forward: How has the pandemic affected graduates’ plans for the future? Amidst all the trouble, to what extent will they be able to bounce back?

“School didn’t prepare me for this”

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee nursing graduate Kasia Vargo is still coming to terms with the fact that she will soon start working on the front lines of the pandemic.

“I was already nervous graduating and transitioning into a career, like everyone else,” she said. “But now I feel like the online education transition still hasn’t given me the skills I need to finally think like a nurse. School didn’t prepare me for this.”

A pandemic, something that even the most seasoned nurses hadn’t experienced before, seemed a far-off possibility while Vargo was a student. “If I were starting out as a nurse now, I’d be very scared of coming up against something that we don’t know very much about,” said Maria Ferreira-Ortiz, a nurse at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens with more than 30 years of experience. Her hospital was at the epicenter of the outbreak in New York. “Everything is new. We don’t know how it behaves, how it changes, how it’s cured. We just don’t know.”

Vargo will be assigned to a transplant ward, caring for immunocompromised patients who are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19. She could begin working in mid-June and, despite her fears, she is eager to get started. “I can’t sit still, I have to keep moving,” she said.

Spending so much time at home instead of finishing her nursing program with her classmates, Vargo felt herself falling back into old patterns of depression and anxiety she thought she’d beaten. This kind of upheaval is “hard for people with depression,” she said. “It can cause a lot of damage. For me it has.” At the same time, her family struggles with debt—from student loans to medical bills—and she wants to start working to help pay it off.

When in doubt, Vargo said, she remembers all the doctors and nurses who helped her when she needed it most. At age three, she was diagnosed with a rare retinal cancer, and being a survivor is what inspired her to become a healthcare worker herself, she said: “I want to give back to the community that helped me so much when I was a kid.”

Growing inequality

It’s hard to predict what the long-term ramifications of the pandemic will be for college graduates, simply because the situation is so unprecedented. But just as lower-income communities have disproportionately suffered from the effects of the pandemic, students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds will likely have a harder time recovering from interruptions to their studies and finding their footing in an economy that looks increasingly bleak.

For Fedjounie (June) Philippe, a senior at Princeton who immigrated to the U.S. from Haiti as a child, the impacts of the pandemic have been far-reaching. Many members of her extended family contracted the virus. Her single mother, a school-bus driver, has been out of work since schools closed. Philippe is the first in her family to attend college, and as with many students from first-generation, low-income backgrounds, she has long felt a great responsibility to support her family.

“It’s just really hard to think about the future, so I don’t do it much outside of the compulsory job applications,” Philippe said. The family filed for bankruptcy last year and is struggling to pay a mortgage and other bills. “Ultimately it just gets burdensome to think that I may not be able to afford to eat next month.”

“With this pandemic, the question is: Who is going to have the materials and resources to support them during the job search process? And who is going to have the networks to expand their application’s reach?” said Anthony Jack, an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the author of The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students. “That’s where we’re going to see the hidden inequalities that permeate all throughout higher education blossom and grow. COVID-19 is that outside shock that is exacerbating pre-existing inequalities.”

When I spoke with first-generation, low-income students, all of them mentioned the many advantages that may help their wealthier peers to succeed, such as family connections to jobs. Amidst widespread unemployment and hiring freezes, some lower-income students may feel pressure to settle for the first paid opportunity that comes along, even if it falls short of their aspirations or goals.

Philippe hopes to pursue graduate school in the social sciences, and she’s currently seeking work with organizations that help underserved students apply to college. But being able to support her mother and younger siblings is still top of mind.

“My mom’s not getting a paycheck, and I want to be able to help her and support her because that’s what I’ve been doing for the past four years,” she said. “But I’m just lying in a pool of uncertainty.”

Ring by spring?

Then there are those for whom the pandemic has brought clarity and new perspectives. Moira LeMay and Eric Goodman, seniors at St. Mary’s College and the University of Notre Dame respectively, have certainly felt that way. “Being at St. Mary’s and Notre Dame there is an underlying culture of ‘ring by spring,’” LeMay said. After dating for more than two years, they were contemplating getting engaged at graduation and celebrating with family and friends after a relaxing last few months at school in Indiana.

When she heard that Notre Dame wasn’t allowing students back on campus after spring break, LeMay immediately thought of Goodman. He was on his way back from a tour in North Carolina with his glee club, and by the time she saw their bus pull in, St. Mary’s had announced its closure, too.

“We cried in the parking lot,” LeMay said. “And then we spent every minute of those last few days together.” He lives in Pittsburgh, her home is in Virginia; immediately, their relationship would become long distance. There would be no Glee Club Formal; no more weekly trivia at a local pub; no senior tradition of driving south to Churchill Downs on sunny days. “It was the little things that bring college students together that were really important for us,” she added.

But at the same time, this crisis has given them the chance to step back and plan their future together. “Before, we had some semblance of a plan, but now we’ve talked about things more,” Goodman said. “And we’re more connected now because of it.”

“Ring by spring,” they decided, could wait. Their relationship would be stronger if they had space to develop as individuals while supporting each other through hard times. They’re hoping to spend much of the summer together. LeMay will be working for the government in the fall; Goodman’s start date for an engineering job has been pushed back to September.

“The pandemic has shown us that there will be challenging moments, but that’s also life,” LeMay said. “We’ve had our challenges, but we’ve also used them to lean on one another and really come together as a team and say ‘Hey, I’m here for you.’”

“Not alone in the hard stuff”

On the ride home from my brother’s college, he slept in the car’s passenger seat, exhausted from a week of goodbyes—and I started thinking again about just how much had been lost. The Class of 2020 will now lead a generation of students who have seen their studies interrupted, in one way or another, by the COVID-19 pandemic. This year’s seniors have been robbed of the big-ticket items: spring sports seasons, beautiful blooming campuses, graduation rituals. And almost more heartbreaking are the little moments lost: the time to ease into life as an independent adult, to relax with friends in honor of all that you’ve accomplished, to talk about how you feel—those everyday anxieties and joys that help you figure out who you are. Members of the Class of 2020 have instead been relegated to their childhood bedrooms, forced to reconcile all of these losses from a distance.

If there’s one group used to stressing out about the future, it’s college seniors. Even a normal graduation year is characterized by uncertainty for so many. First-generation, low-income graduates worry about supporting the family members who have sacrificed to get them to where they are. Couples agonize over the thought of being apart. We question our relationships, our jobs, our plans, our dreams—and hope that we’re making the most of our lives along the way. Pre-existing inequalities will continue to affect the path forward, only now significantly exacerbated by a pandemic that could last far into the future.

And yet, there is a sense of collective resilience. “The extent to which people have been keeping in touch is unfathomable,” one senior said on the phone. Group meals and get-togethers have carried on over Zoom; alumni from various universities have set up online resources to offer graduates emotional, academic, and professional support; “Adopt-a-Senior” pages for high-schoolers have become common on Facebook. Nearly every college senior I spoke with gave a compassionate nod to the classes below them, including high school students, for whom losing internships, research opportunities, college visits, and chances to take standardized tests may prove significantly damaging in the long run.

“I remain convinced that my feelings and anxieties right now are not unique,” wrote Elle O’Brien, a senior at Colgate University, on her blog. “Perhaps it is a comforting realization to know we are not alone in the hard stuff.”

When I spoke with O’Brien by phone, she added this: “The way that the Class of 2020 is saying goodbye to college is different than normal. But we’re kind of all moving through that together.”

Jordan Salama is a freelance writer who graduated from Princeton in 2019. His essays and stories have appeared in The New York Times, Smithsonian, and Scientific American, among others. His first book, Every Day the River Changes, a journey down the greatest river in Colombia, will be published by Catapult in 2021.