Graduating in the Year of COVID-19

Writing in the second-person, Richard Mayne explores what it means for him and others to graduate in 2020...the year of the virus.

By Richard Mayne

You let your phone vibrate in your pocket. They can leave a voicemail if it’s that important. You continue your conversation about the Wars of Roses with your upstairs neighbor, Rosa, who only knows more about them than you do because she (and her husband, for that matter) are from England. Somehow, the conversation leads to Victor Frankenstein’s creature. You ramble on about how Mary Shelley might’ve originally intended for the creature to be a female. Rosa forgets to order the take-out her husband requested around the same time you let that call go to voicemail. You hear the door close downstairs and say, “You forgot to order your dinner.”

When Gary, her husband, reaches the second floor where you live, he finds you standing outside your door and his wife sitting at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the front door of their apartment. Rosa greets him. “Hello, darling. Hope you’re not hungry.”

You all exchange pleasantries and go on with your nights. They dub you Rich the Younger because it sounds Shakespearean and you’re an American who happens to know what the bloody hell Bosworth Field is. Walking up the stairs, they debate whether  chicken or beef chow-mein would go better with their dinner combos.

There are two new emails and a new voicemail on your phone. The voicemail is probably spam . You don’t know anybody with a Virginia telephone number.

Instead, you check the emails.

One is an announcement about a Blackboard assignment for one of the six English classes you’re taking and you don’t bother looking at it. The other is from someone named Sam Taylor. Why does that sound familiar? The subject line reads, “Congratulations.” Your heart jumps; it’s from Wichita State University.

You listen to the voicemail and nearly cry. On March 12, you get into WSU’s MFA Creative Writing program with a concentration in fiction. 

The day before, on March 11, you found out your “other” WSU (that is, Worcester State University) would be extending Spring Break an extra week due to something being called the coronavirus. It sounds pretty nasty, but all you think about is all the writing you’ve been wanting to get done. You romanticize the next two weeks, envisioning them as the most productive two weeks you’ll ever have.

Under normal circumstances, they might have been. But this is 2020.

Day after day, you watch and listen to Dr. Anthony Fauci’s attempts to speak to every man, woman, and child in the United States about a difficult situation, attempting to keep every American informed on this unprecedented event as best as possible. Day after day, you watch the man Dr. Fauci works for, President Trump, try to undercut him at every turn. Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is adamant on there being a need to “flatten the curve” and “social distance” while the Donald talks about wanting to see packed churches on Easter Sunday.

Despite Wichita State attempting to reassure you that they plan on running “pre-pandemic” in the fall, you continue to ask yourself, “What if?” What if your dad catches it and you’re all the way in Kansas? What if you get to Wichita and you’re forced to shelter-in-place, alone in a city you just moved to? What if your first teaching experience comes through a laptop screen instead of a classroom? Moving halfway across the country to Wichita, Kansas, in the middle of a global health pandemic wasn’t a concern when you applied in late January.

On April 15th, you reject Wichita State University’s offer of admission into their MFA Creative Writing program and their English department’s offer of a GTA position. Due to the uncertainty of the future surrounding the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, you decide to put your plans off for a year. “What if” has won out.

You eventually realize you aren’t the only member of the Class of 2020 who has had their senior year affected by COVID-19. You talk to a fellow member of the Class of 2020 you know personally, Victoria Konicki, a senior English major.

She seems quite undisturbed and realistic about her plans after graduation but has concerns over how remote learning is affecting her grades.

“Finding a job in my field was already going to be difficult, and I doubt the pandemic will have made it any easier,” says Konicki. “Having on-campus classes to attend tends to hold me more accountable for completing my work. I’ve had very little motivation to keep up with my now-online classes, and I anticipate my grades will be worse than they would have been without the change to remote learning.” 

Konicki introduces you to Samantha Sealey and Morgan Brogie, two other graduating seniors.

Brogie is a senior public health major with a pre-occupational health concentration. She decided to pursue her graduate studies at WSU in their Master of Occupational Health program prior the outbreak of COVID-19 and has no intention of changing her plans. However, she admits that there are issues in the immediate future.

“Summer classes, which include a science course and lab, will be online which will be a challenge,” says Brogie. “Science courses and labs are difficult to learn on my own, compared to having an instructor in class explain the concepts and labs to me.” 

Sealey is double majoring in both early childhood education and psychology, and despite never really looking for employment or graduate studies elsewhere, she’s seen the future become a somewhat fuzzy picture.

“I had hoped to work at my town’s elementary school for summer programs. However, I did not have the chance to discuss employment. School ended so early, and I’m not sure there will be summer programs this year now, anyways,” she says. “I’ve also noticed that there aren’t a lot of positions posted right now. I’m not sure if I’m looking too early or if principals and schools simply aren’t thinking about the next school year yet. If we do experience another round of COVID-19 in the fall, this could potentially impact my ability to start my career.”  

One thing you all can agree on is that you all feel robbed of your final semester of undergraduate studies. Konicki and Brogie were teammates on the women’s varsity tennis team, and their season was canceled.

“As a member of the WSU tennis team, I have really missed our practices and seeing my teammates, especially because, as a graduating senior, I won’t have another season to play with them,” said Konicki, adding that she was immensely grateful that she was able to participate in the tennis team’s fall season. “I know other sports have lost their only season and I am so sorry for them.”

Sealey, on the other hand, had been student-teaching prior to the outbreak of COVID-19 and lost over a month of classroom experience due to the pandemic.

“My practicum experience was cut extremely short. The last day we were in school was a Thursday, and we had no idea that we wouldn’t be coming back to the school for the rest of the year.  I wish I had known,” she says, noting that the teacher she was learning under is retiring. “I wanted to celebrate my teacher’s retirement with her and the students on the last day of school. I hope all of my students are doing okay. They don’t all have access to the Google chats we do.”

You place yourself in your classmates’ shoes and see that your story is only one in a collection of hundreds. Losing the opportunity to play a sport, gain experience as an instructor, or to transition smoothly into a graduate studies program are all pieces of fragments that form a tapestry of tales, tales of how COVID-19 brought about the academic apocalypse by way of remote learning.

Yet this is the year you graduate from Worcester State University. Your cap and gown still signifies a celebration of academic achievement, and your degree will still be proof of your achievement. The tassel you’ll flip as a symbolic right-of-passage still reads “2020.” Years from now, you’ll look back and realize that you lived through something that hadn’t happened in over one hundred years. You’ll remember shelter-in-place orders that were set to the backdrop of writing research papers and taking final exams. However, ultimately, you still earned what you’d been studying for.

And what’s the best part about that, you ask? Nobody can take that away from any of you.

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