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Graduation in the Era of COVID-19

The surprise social distance car parade some of the staff put together for the grads after the ceremony. Photo by Rita Banerjee.
On Saturday, May 16, the Vermont College of Fine Arts held a virtual graduation ceremony for its on-campus Writing and Publishing Master of Fine Arts program. Graduation is a celebration of academic achievements and an important milestone in students’ lives: the culmination of an intensive educational path that will lead graduates into their futures. Regardless of one’s level of education, this year’s graduation was very different from any other year. As the number of COVID-19 cases continued to rise—there have been more than 4.44 million confirmed cases of the virus worldwide, with a collective death toll of more than 300,000 —it was impossible to hold an in-person graduation ceremony. Social distancing measures are necessary for fighting the pandemic and staying safe, but the impact of the pandemic on daily life and major milestones has not been easy or trivial.

COVID-19 will have lasting effects on both the economy and the human psyche. Students and those in the workforce are faced with a world that is forever changed. As former President Barack Obama said in his address to high school seniors at the 2020 Graduate Together event, “If we’re going to get through these difficult times, we’re going to have to do it together.”

I connected with a few of the graduating students from VCFA’s Writing and Publishing MFA program—Rebecca Jamieson, Tyler Glauz-Todrank, and Jordan Glynn—to discuss the changes to their master’s program and graduation, and how the pandemic has impacted their post-graduation plans.

How do you feel about the changes made to your classes and your graduation ceremony because of the pandemic?

Tyler: I feel like overall VCFA has done a good job accommodating the new restrictions. It hasn’t been easy to have classes online, and I really miss being in the classroom with other people. There’s no way to have graduation now in a large gathering, but I am really disappointed to not have a celebration in person. It feels very anticlimactic to finish my thesis and graduate online and doesn’t feel like a satisfying ending to all the work we have achieved.

Jordan: While the changes are obviously necessary… the move to online graduation removes the human element and a lot of the sense of achievement. Zooming into a conference isn’t quite the same as seeing everyone’s happy faces without the problems of internet lag, camera quality, and the quirky technical problems every video room gets to suffer.

Rebecca: When I first heard we were canceling the in-person graduation ceremony, I was devastated. I was homeschooled, so I never had high school graduation, and my family wasn’t able to attend the ceremony when I completed my undergraduate degree. I’m still feeling sad that our ceremony has moved online, but it opened up an unexpected silver lining: now even more of my family and friends will be able to attend my graduation! I think VCFA has handled coping with the pandemic really well, and I appreciate all the thought and care they’ve put into keeping us safe and making our graduation the best experience possible, given the circumstances.

Has the pandemic affected your post-graduation plans, and if so, how?

Tyler: All of my plans have changed. Because the unemployment rate is so high, there are few to no jobs to apply for. I have no idea how I will manage financially in the long-term, but I’m hoping to use this time of seclusion to continue working on writing projects. Honestly, the future is a complete unknown, now more than ever. I trust that something will open up for me, but it is a discouraging time to be graduating.

Jordan: The pandemic has mostly just frozen my hiring prospects. I had interviews lined up that fell through as states closed and businesses began to halt all movements. It’s a bit anxiety-inducing but completely understandable, and I am fortunate enough to be able to live with my family until the future crystallizes into something we can feasibly plan again.

Rebecca: I’m very fortunate that my day job is in communications and digital marketing, and that industry is in no danger of going away any time soon, especially as organizations scramble to increase their online presence and offerings. I was definitely hoping to move into a career in the writing world, post-graduation, but banking on that was always a longshot even pre-pandemic.

I think in some ways, writers and artists are better-suited to coping with this kind of crisis because we’re used to it. We’re used to our jobs being uncertain, underpaid, and underappreciated. I think we have a unique resiliency in this kind of situation, because it’s just a more extreme version of what we were already experiencing, and we’re used to being flexible, adaptive, and creative.

What would you say to people who question whether or not these difficult measures are necessary, despite the risks associated with ending social distancing too early?

Tyler: While I am very disappointed by the timing, there is obviously no good time for a pandemic, and knowing that people are still getting really sick and sometimes dying far outweighs my disappointment. I completely support following the measures for social distancing and stopping the spread of the virus even when it means adapting all of my plans and expectations.

Jordan: Why needlessly risk student and participant wellbeing? I’m disappointed we don’t get to gather in person, but I’d be distraught if any of my peers or their family members ended up ill because of something we could have avoided.

Rebecca: I know how much people are hurting right now, and I can understand why that might lead some to question the necessity of social distancing. But the science is clear that there are huge risks involved in opening up the country too soon, and in order to protect the greater good, we need to follow scientific guidance.