Almost overnight, the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic altered the lives of everyone in the university community. All spring semester study abroad programs were suspended, in-person classes were moved online, campus was effectively locked down and, finally, commencement was postponed.
“It felt like we left for spring break as college students, and came back to adulthood without any closure from finishing college,” said senior Izzi Einhorn.
COVID-19 has deeply affected seniors in the graduating class of 2020. For four years, seniors have eagerly anticipated a weekend filled with academic department breakfasts, the baccalaureate service and finally, the commencement ceremony. Yet, they will not be able to walk across the stage and collect their diplomas this May, even though the university is known for its grand commencement on Hearn Plaza, which is attended by 13,000 to 15,000 people each year.
The long-awaited ceremony became another victim of the COVID-19 pandemic last week. On March 30, President Nathan Hatch sent an email to the community announcing that there will be a virtual conferring of degrees on May 18, and that the university is postponing the in-person commencement ceremony, which will be scheduled as soon as it is once again safe to gather in large groups.
The news, while not unexpected due to the public health guidelines urging social distancing, was still emotional for many seniors.
“It feels surreal, I feel as if I’m on an extended vacation and one day I’m going to wake up and be back in my NCA bedroom and I’ll still have all the senior year memories I’ve been looking forward to,” said senior Ashley Fountain.
Upon hearing the news, other seniors expressed their disappointment. For many, not being able to say goodbye to the people they’ve spent the last four years with is the hardest part.
“The lack of goodbyes that I’ve waited four years for hurts my heart deeply,” said senior Sam Sutton.
For others, they miss the chance to cross off items on their bucket list or enjoy in-person celebrations of campus traditions that they will not be able to participate in this spring, like Shag on the Mag.
“Saying goodbye to Wake [Forest] was supposed to be something that happened over the span of two months, but instead it happened in two days over spring break,” said senior Carly Liebich.
Others expressed concern about what the future holds for them, especially without being able to experience the finality of walking across the stage to receive their degree during commencement.
“[I have] mixed feelings for the virtual commencement for May,” said senior Chandler Averette. “Yes, I want the diploma, but the magic of graduation will not be fully felt through the digital screen.”
University administrators and Student Government are doing all they can to preserve the graduation experience. Senior Mellie Mesfin, the president of Student Government, posted a video to social media reassuring seniors that the university is actively planning a new commencement and that administrators are taking seniors’ opinions into account. She urged seniors to respond to an email sent out by the university in order to help plan the details.
Yet, seniors are realizing that even when they finally have their chance to walk across the stage in person at the postponed commencement, it will be very different from what they pictured throughout their last four years.
“I’ve been longing for that sense of closure to my college experience,” Fountain said. “I’m not quite sure it’ll be the same having it postponed.”
Despite these heartbreaking changes, seniors are trying to stay positive as colleges across the country have opted to cancel in-person graduation ceremonies all together, including the University of Pennsylvania, Yale, Stanford, the University of Virginia and many others.
“[I am] thankful that Wake [Forest] has moved graduation rather than making it online,” Einhorn said. “I appreciate that they’re trying their best to listen to what the students want and need.”
Other seniors are trying to focus on the positives of the university’s decision, as well as find meaning and purpose amidst this time of chaos and uncertainty.
“This does teach us a lot of people important lessons, chief among them being that you don’t always know when you’ll get to say your goodbyes,” Sutton said. “Savor every moment, every day and every person as if it’s the last time you’ll see them.”