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Ming Wong is an art director at The Globe and Mail.
For students in the class of 2020, graduation isn’t exactly going according to plan.
First of all, university grads are entering a job market where employment of those with degrees is down 28 per cent. For high school students, the post-secondary experience won’t look anything like the cheery images in admissions catalogues, with many schools planning for a virtual fall semester.
These days, in my role as an art director at The Globe, I have no graduation to look forward to, no cap and gown to put on. But, just like those graduating students, I’ve been thrust into this liminal space where I can’t plan beyond my weekly grocery run. As I cross day 85 off in my pandemic life, it feels like there is no room to imagine new opportunities as we all struggle to get through this. So, I wondered, how are grads, meant to start this new chapter with hope and optimism only to have it end in an anti-climactic fizzle, taking it?
I posed that question to Grade 12 student Shanzey Ali, who is graduating from her Ontario high school this month. “It feels like a story that didn’t get an ending,” she told me. Although she’s disappointed not to have a proper graduation, she’s still excited to start her health sciences studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., this fall.
When University of British Columbia student Alex Nguyen realized the pandemic meant no graduation ceremony, she found the event in her planner “and then I wrote ‘LOL’ next to it and crossed it out,” she says. Nguyen, who will spend her summer working in The Globe newsroom as a content editor, says she’s not particularly bummed about the ceremony itself being cancelled. “It’s more about taking photos with your friends and grabbing a patio beer afterwards and reminiscing about the year you had.”
Sadly, patio beers won’t be happening in most parts of the country. In fact, as we all know, celebrations, and goodbyes have been cancelled around much of the world. As Cindee Tang, a Vanderbilt University graduate in Nashville, told The Cut: “I never got to say goodbye to my friends or talk to my favourite teachers about my postgrad plans … I’m an immigrant single child of an immigrant single mother, and it saddens me that she will not be able to see me walk the stage in my regalia.”
In response, some schools and students are taking matters into their own hands. The images in this BuzzFeed News article detail the creative lengths graduates are going to in order to mark their big day, from virtual ceremonies unfolding on screens in bedrooms everywhere, to outdoor ceremonies complete with physical distancing and masks, to drive-thru ceremonies, including one on a race track.
This Calgary high school took a similar approach, as CBC reports, driving students through a makeshift space outside of the school instead of holding a traditional ceremony, with cheering onlookers, including teachers, nearby. “It was a real disappointment not getting to have a grad, like everybody else before us. They took what happened and made something great out of it,” Rachel Weed told CBC News.
Students have even thought of an alternative for the tradition of yearbook signing. Seniors at various U.S. high schools have created yearbook accounts on Instagram, as Taylor Lorenz reports in The New York Times. Classmates comment on posts showcasing each other’s grad photo and future plans in place of autographing actual books. “Although we can’t all get together and celebrate graduation, having us all on a page together makes us feel like a community," Molly Clinch told Lorenz.
And for some, there’s no need to mourn the commencement speech, as this Associated Press article notes, with celebrities such as Tom Hanks delivering them virtually, and companies putting together star-studded online events, including Facebook’s Graduation 2020, with commencement speeches from Oprah Winfrey, Awkwafina, Lil Nas X and Simone Biles, among others.
Over at The Atlantic, editors have assembled a series of pieces to take the place of commencement addresses, including this refreshingly honest article from writer Jemele Hill. “When I graduated from college, there was a long list of dos and don’ts that my generation never really questioned. Don’t leave a job before you’ve been there for two years. Forget what you’re worth, and settle for what they give you. Don’t make demands, because doing so is too aggressive (especially if you’re a woman and especially, especially if you’re a black woman),” she writes. But now, and especially in the face of a pandemic, she encourages grads to “rewrite rules that are not holding up.” She explains, “As a budding sports journalist, I was told to wait my turn and bide my time. But who is thinking that way now?”
A shift in thinking may be what a lot of us need right now, in a multitude of spheres. This final sentiment from Hill seems like a fitting place to end, for graduates, and the rest of us: "Life will always be unpredictable and uncomfortable. And sometimes that discomfort will seem suffocating. But you’ll get through it, not because you have all the answers, but because you are wise and experienced enough to realize that you’re not supposed to.”
What else we’re thinking about:
We all want to move forward from COVID-19 to a postpandemic normal but as Kathleen Newman-Bremang writes in Refinery29 in the wake of George Floyd’s death, "There is no 'post-pandemic’ for the racist foundation our systems are built on. We cannot postpone our trauma until 2021.” In the same vein, this Wall Street Journal photo essay resonates with me for its quiet look at individual protesters.
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