Donning a traditional cap and a not-so-traditional pair of giraffe pajamas, Becca Hoffman set out to take her college graduation photos. Wandering around an emptying campus snapping shots, Hoffman, and friends clad in similar attire, wanted to do something fun to commemorate their last four years—they were being forced to leave Whitman College early and under entirely different circumstances than expected. As schools shut down across the country in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, students have had to adapt to a new reality—and seniors in college and high school are trying to creatively reevaluate what they had thought were firm plans for graduation and their futures.
Virtual commencements, online profiles, and Class of 2020 yard signs are some of the ways families and schools honored and celebrated their grads while under stay-at-home restrictions, albeit less festively than they would have wished.
But despite the pandemic limitations in their lives, NE Denver grads found a silver lining. The Stapleton Master Community Association organized an open-to-all, first-ever car parade that offered grads a memorable celebration along its 4.8 mile parade route. Escorted by cops with flashing lights, 302 vehicles traversed the route from the Shops at Northfield to the East 29th Ave. Town Center. And smiling graduates leaned out of windows and popped up through skylights to wave and acknowledge cheers from acceptably-distanced spectators.
One parade participant, Abrán Romero, a senior at Northfield High School, concluded, “I actually kind of prefer this kind of graduation. The whole caravan of cars and the cheering; it was a lot of fun.” He thinks the event should become a lasting tradition.
The lack of a traditional in-person ceremony, however, was a big disappointment to others. “We don’t get that moment,” says Jimena Cristerna, a senior at George Washington High School. “When you walk up the steps, you’re in front of a crowd of over a thousand people, and they’re all cheering for you. We don’t get that.”
Along with the loss of graduations, this year’s seniors have missed out on other aspects of the final semester of high school such as prom, senior sunset, senior ditch day and, for many, sports seasons.
RaSheik Gaddis is a graduating senior at Northfield High School and member of the boys basketball team. The relatively new team, established only three years ago and viewed largely as an underdog, surpassed expectations this year, reaching the Final Four in the 4A state tournament. They were only one win away from earning a spot in the championship game when the pandemic forced schools to close and sporting events to be canceled. Along with the disappointment of not getting to complete his senior season, Gaddis feels that it may have affected his prospects and college options. “I think I missed out on a lot of potential [college] offers.”
Gaddis is not alone in worrying about how the pandemic has and will continue to affect his future. With colleges having transitioned to remote learning and uncertainty around when in-person instruction may resume, many members of the Class of 2020 find their previously solidified plans being put into question.
“I’m kinda conflicted on what I’m going to do about this whole situation,” says Max Epperson, a senior at East High School, planning to attend the University of Colorado, Boulder in the fall. “If college starts in an online format, I’ll feel like we’re wasting money because half of the college experience for me is being able to actually live and interact with my peers on campus.” He says he would consider taking a gap year if in-person classes are not a reality for the fall semester.
Lydia Loof, a senior at George Washington High School is still planning to start classes in the fall at Amherst College, even if they are online. However, she is concerned about what the pandemic could mean for her and her peers’ experiences transitioning out of high school. “I’m young and supposed to be starting a new chapter in my life,” she says. “One of the things I’m most worried about is missing out on things that I may not be able to do in the future that I’ve been looking forward to, like having a traditional college experience.”
Hoffman is also concerned about moving into post-graduation life after college under the current circumstances. Having left Whitman and moved back to Colorado to live with her family and finish the semester online, she is grateful for the time she is spending with her family, but feels the loss of having to leave the life she built over the past four years and the independence she had established. The situation has caused her to reevaluate and ultimately accelerate her plans for the future.
“I think that being back home and feeling like I’m moving backwards really pushed me to want to move forward,” says Hoffman. “I am getting into a job much faster than I think I would have if the pandemic hadn’t happened.”
Hoffman will be moving to Seattle and starting a job as a medical assistant at the beginning of June. While she is excited about the job, she shares the anxieties of the high school seniors, including Romero, Cristerna, Gaddis and Loof, about the uncertainty of the future they are entering.
“We are living in a time that is so different,” says Cristerna. She is interested in becoming a teacher, but has recently been questioning her previous conception of what that career path would look like. “It’s really hard to continue to plan to major in education when becoming a teacher is now going to be so much different than what it was.”
Grace Adams is a Junior at Loyola Marymount University studying Spanish and Journalism.