The last semester of school is an exciting time for many students. If you think back to your own graduation, you can likely recall how eager you were to walk the stage. You may have planned to host a last hoorah with your friends before stepping into adulthood, or maybe you started applying for jobs to jumpstart your career.
Unfortunately — for almost 1.3 million college students who are expected to graduate from schools all over the U.S. in May 2020 — the coronavirus has upended plans to celebrate that milestone moment with their classmates, friends, and family. Among multiple historically Black colleges and universities, Howard University and Clark Atlanta University plan to move their commencement ceremony to a later date in the year. Others, like Grambling State University, have decided to cancel their ceremonies altogether and mail degrees to students instead. In the wake of sudden commencement ceremony changes and cancellations, many students have taken to social media to express their disappointment.
On the flipside, this pandemic has given students the time to sit with themselves, and dig deeper as they reconfigure plans and search for the light at the end of the tunnel. Through this period of self-reflection, some have discovered newfound strength. In turn, their resilience is preparing them for their future.
R29Unbothered talked to four Black students to hear their thoughts on college campus closings, commencement cancellations, and how they’re managing their mental health through it all.
Kiara Miller, Pace University
After she heard the news her school was closing, Kiara Miller — a Pace University senior and commercial dance major from Pembroke Pines, FL — took to Instagram stories to express how heartbroken she was.
“At first, I was hesitant to post because I didn't want people to think I was selfish,” she tells R29Unbothered. “We were all in the studio when we were notified that we had to leave campus and that was the moment it set in, that was not how I envisioned it.”
She was getting ready for her last two showcases, where she would have performed for prospective agents. She was also excited to share the stage with her classmates one last time.
“I made a big sacrifice, an emotional investment for me and I had my mom investing in me. So, I had this huge pressure on my shoulders, and I made it,” she continues. “Every tear, every injury, every success, every breakthrough was all going to accumulate to that one moment at graduation. I fantasized that entire moment with my mom and it feels like my sacrifices and investment got the short end of the stick.”
Miller remains in New York City with her roommates in their apartment. Classes have now transitioned to online and zoom. But, she is hopeful that there will be another opportunity for her to dance and connect with agents once things calm down.
Abigail Cherubin, University of Florida
Abigail, a journalism major, made a bucket list of things she wanted to do during her last semester. The list featured everything from spending special moments with friends to exploring and embracing Gainesville, FL. Abigail had also been saving money from previous jobs so she could intern or study abroad, and she dedicated her last semester to submitting job applications and preparing for her future. The pressure was on.
“Graduation was more than just graduation to me. As a Black woman at a predominately white institution, as a second generation Haitian American, I know what this means to my family,” she shares with R29Unbothered. “I was going against all the odds and I was able to push through that with every internship I received, scholarship I earned, and the opportunity to study abroad in India.”
For Abigail, graduation meant changing the narrative for her family. As a first generation college student, it was her dream as well as theirs. Fortunately, when the University of Florida abruptly told students they had to leave campus, Abigail — whose family lives in Miami — didn’t have to travel too far. However, it wasn’t lost on her that her friends and other students didn’t have it as easy.
Travel isn’t the only thing affecting students at her school.
“Once you switch an in person class to online, it’s different,” she says. “Our professors keep expressing that they want the same level of engagement, but it’s not the same. It's been hard trying to stay engaged because I’m still processing everything.”
One thing Abigail encourages others to do a mental health check. She encourages other students not to hesitate to let their professors know what they’re dealing with.
Tiana Preacher, Hampton University
Tiana Preacher, a first generation college student at Hampton University studying psychology, recalls how abruptly her school notified her she had to leave campus.
“It was a Friday, and they told us everybody had to leave by Sunday at noon. After we left, we discussed future plans. We were previously scheduled to come back on April 5 because the university thought it would be temporary, but then we were told [the pandemic] was getting worse and nobody was coming back to campus.”
In addition to the sudden notification, Preacher says the school didn’t mention anything about how work study students would potentially be paid — a large issue considering many students across the country depend on money from work study jobs to support themselves while on campus.
“Some people pay their rent with this and it sucks because now you don’t have this source of income that you usually get,” says Preacher. “I depend on this check every month and now I have to find another source of income.”
Preacher was also excited for her upcoming senior ball, which was set to take place in early April. On the bright side, she is grateful that graduation will be postponed until September 27th. But while she is looking forward to the next chapter, she feels like her life has reached a halt.
Nevertheless, Preacher says she’s been staying motivated by sticking to her usual class schedule — the only difference now is that she’s home with her mom in Chester, PA., taking classes online. Although she missed a semester of her junior year after her father passed away last year, she promised herself to keep going and make her senior year her best one yet.
“I’ve taken a break from social media, called friends instead of just text, and started crocheting again just to keep my mind occupied and remain positive.”
Monica O’Haeri, Minnesota High School Student
Monica, a senior in high school in Minnesota, didn’t know how serious the spread of COVID-19 was until her school started canceling events, and the state went into precautionary shutdown.
“It’s sad that I won’t be able to share these last few moments with my friends and classmates, but I’d rather have the virus go away faster instead of us all being at events,” she shares.
O’Haeri — who says she’s still looking forward to college acceptance letters being mailed out — was volunteering at a hospital, working at a coding center, and playing the viola in school before quarantine guidelines were enforced.
“This whole situation has made me a lot more anxious and paranoid,” she says. “I haven’t left my house in two weeks and I want everything to go back to normal, and looking at the news is overwhelming.”
To keep from panicking, O’Haeri has been bonding more with family by communicating more and doing fun activities such as playing board games.