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“These are unprecedented times” is a phrase now ingrained in my brain. Since March 11, my university has repeatedly used those words in an attempt to describe the ripple effects of the COVID-19 on higher education. In less than a week, myself and other graduating seniors, Masters and PhD candidates, who were eager to walk across the stage, will no longer get that sought-after procession of pomp and circumstance. Institutions of learning around the country are postponing or outright cancelling one of the most important rituals of our lives.

From rushing to create online courses on Zoom, to realizing a once abundant job market is seemingly nearing a recession, the saying seems true: life comes at you fast. I was not prepared for this global pandemic to punch me and my plans in the gut.

I am a Masters of Social Work (MSW) student studying International Development and Social Entrepreneurship. I have been immersed in courses related to international policy and theory, and searching for jobs abroad. Since January, I planned time this semester for post-graduate employment opportunities with interviews lined up for March until May. Now, everything has changed. My classes have lost their allure. My job interviews are on hold. In addition, the one moment I’ve been waiting for is now a solid blacked out line in my Passion Planner.

To have something you have worked so hard for, be ripped right from under you is heartbreaking. When I got the news, I cried into the unknown for hours. My tears turned to anger as I looked for someone to blame. I leaned on my family and friends for support via FaceTime and text. Since COVID-19 first spread, I shamed myself at how many times I said, “It’s just the flu,” not knowing the severity of it all. I mourned the wild end-of-the-year party I would no longer have the chance to throw with friends, and the last brunch where we would drink cheap Prosecco and orange juice before our families came to town. The final semester courses we wished would be over, so we could get started in our careers, were cut short for us. We didn’t see it coming.

Still, I want to be clear that COVID-19 crushing my graduation is bigger than a little pomp and circumstance.

You see, prior to COVID-19, I did not remember being this excited for my high school or undergraduate graduations. This was not because I studied harder or deserved this degree more than the others. For me, graduation has always been about family, and this time I would have celebrated and graduated in my father’s hometown. As a Black man in his 60s, who also holds a Masters degree, we bonded more deeply during my MSW journey. Over the past two years he spoke several times about never getting the opportunity to apply to my future alma mater due to the racism of his time.

On several occasions, my dad expressed how my late grandmother, who migrated from Mississippi to Missouri during the Great Migration, would have been so proud that I returned to the last city she called home to seek this degree. His reflections always brought tears to my eyes. My grandmother’s energy and spirit would have been fully present. This was a walk down the aisle to the stage for me, for him, for all of us.

I doubt my story is unique. Whether you’re a first-generation college student or someone who just wanted to kick it with their friends one last time, we will not get those end-of-the-year memories back. At least not in the way we imagined. To miss out on cording ceremonies, honor society inductions, award celebrations and prom feels horrible right now. Deep down I think we all now know COVID-19 is a threat we do not want to mess with. Though it is a painful reality, cancellations and postponements will help to flatten the curve and prevent others from succumbing to a virus they did not see coming either.

So, now we watch and wait. By conferring our degrees via mail or in-person, my friends and I will inevitably spread out across the globe when the coast is clear. I do not want to get my hopes up for an August graduation, nor do I have the capacity right now to process a December ceremony in seven months. Nope. I cannot even entertain the possibility of a May 2021 commencement. There are talks of a virtual alternative, but honestly it would not be the same. For many students it is about the journey and the day we get to celebrate with our loved ones in-person.

Even though I am anxious for what the next few months have to offer, I am grateful to be alive and have the privilege of social distance. I will not get the visual rite of passage I was hoping for, post an Instagram photo in my regalia with the caption “she mastered it twice” or even hear the screams of my loved ones as they call my name. While it’s sad, I know there are healthcare and grocery store workers risking their lives to make sure we make it through this. Thousands have already died and that number will continue to rise. It seems surreal right now, yet I know these “unprecedented times” too shall pass. I think.