For graduating students, last college moments came and went before they knew it

Tuesday, March 17, 2020 - 7:45pm

Graduating students at the University of Michigan reflect on the cancellation of graduation and the end of classes.

Graduating students at the University of Michigan reflect on the cancellation of graduation and the end of classes. Buy this photo
Allison Engkvist/Daily

The University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus has an eerie, ghostlike feel to it. 

In the past week, each day has come with a new blow to normalcy because of the coronavirus. First, in-person classes were canceled. Next came all sports competitions. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered all Michigan restaurants, bars and other public places of accommodation to shut down temporarily, meaning that on-campus dining halls and libraries have closed. Today, another blow — students in dorms must leave unless they “truly have no other alternatives,” and other students have also been urged to leave campus.

The changes have impacted everyone in the University community, as well as people worldwide. But especially for those finishing their final year, the timing of this global pandemic could not be worse. On Wednesday, they attended classes unaware that these in-person meetings would be their last. They had to cancel large, meaningful events of their senior year, such as concerts and competitions. And then on Friday, March 13, University President Mark Schlissel sent out an email confirming that Spring Commencement was canceled.

“I probably cried for a solid 40 minutes, and I don’t really cry. I wouldn’t say I’m a crier,” LSA senior Sydney Moore said.

Schlissel’s initial email contained a few sentences saying commencement was canceled and that the University “will look at ways to celebrate 2020 graduates in the future.” A follow-up email from Acting Provost Susan Collins and Interim Vice President for Student Life Simone Himbeault Taylor, sent first to parents and then to students, elaborated more on the decision. 

“We know that this decision is very upsetting for many of our graduates and their families. Our students work incredibly hard to reach this milestone, and those who earn a Michigan degree deserve to be celebrated with their friends, professors, families and loved ones. Commencement is one of our favorite times of the year, as well,” Collins and Himbeault Taylor wrote. “At the same time, we want commencement to be safe – for our graduates, the hundreds of employees who prepare for and work during the ceremonies, and the tens of thousands who join us to celebrate.”

Collins and Himbeault Taylor said the University will find another date for the Class of 2020’s commencement and will share that information as soon as possible. 

Still, an abrupt end to college as they know it with no May graduation ceremony is jarring, according to the graduating students who spoke to The Michigan Daily. They know it isn’t the University’s fault, and that canceling the ceremony is for the best. But for these students it’s still an upsetting turn of events.

Here are some of the names, faces and stories, in their own words, of the University of Michigan Class of 2020. Some quotes have been condensed for clarity. 

Rosie Van Alsburg, an Engineering senior studying computer science and physics, is from Ann Arbor, Mich.

Engineering senior Rosie Van Alsburg.

Engineering senior Rosie Van Alsburg. Buy this photo
Allison Engkvist/Daily

“I’m a transfer student so I started at WCC (Washtenaw Community College) first and then came here. I’ve been in college for five years.

Everything still feels fake, you know. I’m in a state of disbelief, like, ‘Oh, it’s a joke. They’re going to put classes back in person and this is just a weird dream.’ But my friends are booking flights back to their home states and everything, so I know that it’s actually happening.

I’m the oldest grandkid on both sides, so I’m the first grandkid in my family to graduate. Both sides of my family were going to come in. I was really excited about that. I’ve just been in school for a very long time. This was supposed to be the celebration — that I didn’t suffer for five years for nothing.

My last year I failed a class. Six credits worth of class. EECS 482, it’s the operating systems class, it’s famously the hardest one in the department. And I failed it. I did really poorly, and I thought I was going to drop out and that was the end of it. It turns out, it’s okay, I came back from it. My GPA’s not perfect, but I’m still graduating. I meet all my requirements, and I’ve got a job lined up for May. So, I came back from that.”

Sydney Moore, an LSA senior studying Women’s Studies, is from Taylor, Mich.

LSA senior Sydney Moore.

LSA senior Sydney Moore. Buy this photo
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“I am the first person in my family to graduate from college. And, obviously, we still get the degree and all that, but commencement and the graduations and celebrating with your friends and the department and the faculty you’ve built relationships with is something that has really motivated me. I hate to say that, that being here isn’t enough, but it’s not. 

All my family would come and watch me be the first to graduate. The hardest thing actually was calling my mom and telling my mom there is not going to be anything at all. Because when I called her on Wednesday when they canceled classes, the first and only thing she said to me was, ‘Please don’t tell me they’re going to cancel graduation.’ That’s all my parents have been waiting for, to see me graduate from U-M. 

I don’t want to cry, but it’s like — even finishing high school was something that felt impossible. Coming to U-M has felt — obviously there are things wrong with the institution, we all know that — but to come to this kind of university… this is not an institution that was built for me, the fact that I kept going even when I didn’t want to is like really the biggest thing.”

Alexandra Niforos, an LSA senior studying English, is from Grosse Pointe, Mich.

LSA senior Alexandra Niforos.

LSA senior Alexandra Niforos. Buy this photo
Allison Engkvist/Daily

“I was on the phone with my friend who’s also a senior here and we were actually in the middle of canceling ‘The Wiz’ for Musket … And then I got the Schlissel email, and I was like, ‘Before we continue, commencement was canceled.’ We both were in shock … At first, I was like, ‘This might as well happen.’ But as soon as I was on the phone with my mom, I burst into tears and just felt overwhelming emotion.

I know it’s a formality but it still feels important — and the product of all your hard work is walking in graduation. I was thinking my grandparents are immigrants and education is so important to my family, I would have been their first granddaughter to graduate college, and they would have watched that happen. And now they don’t get that.

(I’d like) more answers about what’s next. I know when I read that email, I was so jarred that it was so minimized … They were like, ‘We’re looking for an alternative way to celebrate the class of 2020,’ and I said, ‘What does that mean?’ … It just felt like a formality and not like an actual solution. I understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, but for them to just leave us hanging with no answers, it added to the shock.”

Ryan Montgomery, a Business senior studying Human Resources and Music, is from Grand Haven, Mich.

Business senior Ryan Montgomery

Business senior Ryan Montgomery Buy this photo
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“My older brother, he’s 31, he spent five years here at Michigan. So, I kind of grew up ever since fifth grade knowing I wanted to go to Michigan — it was the place I was going to be. I was going to join the Men’s Glee Club, I was going to graduate, I was going to do all this, and to have that ripped away, it’s really rough. It’s not a fun time for anybody. 

It’s been madness (being a Resident Adviser). Res staff in general has been doing a pretty good job of communicating. It’s been as smooth as it can be for these unprecedented times but there’s still some smaller aspects where it’d be nice to know that this is happening. What I love is the actual RA community, we’re really, really tight, so it’s been nice to have them to rely on. 

Being in the Men’s Glee Club is the reason I came to Michigan, more than academics, more than sports or anything like that. I needed to be in this choir. My freshman year I came in, joined the Glee Club, and we were performing this piece called ‘Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,’ which is about the last words of seven Black men who were shot by white police. And so that was a huge milestone for us. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor reached out to us and said, ‘Hey, I’d love to have the Glee Club come into my black-tie dinner party and perform for us.’ I was one of 20 people chosen to fly out to D.C. and sing for that. That was magical. If there was one moment I had to boil it down to, it’d probably be that.

My brother got the chance to go on two international tours with Glee Club, they do them about every four years, so that was my big thing. I’d been saving up, I worked really hard for a Boy Scout Popcorn Scholarship, stuff like that, way back when I was young. I was always working my whole life to go on an international tour, and then to hear that our spring concert for this year and international tour for this year was canceled, it’s devastating. It’s an absolute bombshell to all the seniors and all the graduating folks who this was going to be their last time.”

Desi Dikova, an LSA senior studying Chemistry and Interdisciplinary Physics with a minor in Energy Science and Policy, is from Farmington Hills, Mich.

LSA senior Desi Dikova.

LSA senior Desi Dikova. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Desi Dikova

“Canceling commencement was absolutely in the best interests of protecting our most vulnerable. Of course, we can rationalize it all day long and still feel hurt. 

As a low-income, first-generation college student, attending, let alone graduating, college is a huge accomplishment. This meant so much to me and my family. I was most looking forward to Al Gore’s speech at commencement and participating in the Spectrum Center’s Lavender Graduation for LGBT+ students. I was also looking forward to SWAM club swim’s end-of-the-year formal and banquet. I’ve been with SWAM for the past four years. Not being able to say goodbye to my beloved teammates, the people who have meant the most to me, is the biggest disappointment. It’s jarring and shocking that none of it will happen. 

I’m most proud of myself for starting the Chemistry Inclusivity Initiative with the American Chemical Society club this year. We hosted guest faculty, ran a mentorship program and launched a podcast series about the intersection of social identities and the sciences. It’s been incredibly rewarding to develop diversity and inclusivity initiatives that I would’ve wanted when I was first starting college. What we leave behind is so much greater than any school-wide, department or extracurricular ceremony can recognize.”

Vijita Kamath, a Business senior studying Math and Business Administration, is from Mumbai, India.

Business senior Vijita Kamath.

Business senior Vijita Kamath. Buy this photo
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“I was extremely upset because I’m also in the process of immigrating, so I don’t get to go home. I’m essentially stuck in the U.S., and I thought I would see my dad for a conference which was happening next weekend, but that got canceled. And he’s like, ‘Oh well, never mind. I’ll come for commencement.’ And now that’s also gone, so I haven’t seen my family in two years, which makes me sad.

I was looking forward to seeing my family the most and since I’m a fifth-year senior just finally being able to validate it and get it all done, because it’s been a long five years of college.

My sophomore year my mother passed away, and I was stuck in the same immigration dilemma then too, so being home was a really stressful time. One thing I was bummed about then was that my mother doesn’t get to see me graduate. And now it’s like both my parents don’t, and I’m the only child and an international student and first-gen so that was one thing that I was really sad about. But I’m also glad that I was able to overcome that, be able to graduate with two degrees instead of one, which makes me really proud and be involved with all the extracurriculars I do in my life.

A delayed date would be really helpful or just telling us how they’d accommodate us if we walked in the December commencement activities that happen for Fall 2020 grads. In terms of them telling us that they made accommodations so when we start our jobs, giving us a date so we can leave and walk and be back with our friends to celebrate, giving us travel accommodations would be really helpful. Or just an online address from professors, deans, even if we can’t congregate.”

Jackie Berger, an LSA senior studying Political Science, is from West Bloomfield, Mich.

“I was looking forward to hearing former Vice President Al Gore as our commencement speaker. My family has been insanely unlucky in terms of our commencement speakers. I have two older siblings that both graduated from the University of Michigan also. My older sister was part of the Class of 2015. Their commencement speaker was originally NBC news anchor Brian Williams. The University, however, had to cancel him as speaker because Williams was caught in a scandal after making up a story while covering the war in Iraq. My older brother was part of the class of 2017, which as some of you may know was the year of the infamous video montage commencement speech. My brother refused to show up to his commencement ceremony, so none of us did as well. My family was looking (forward to) finally having a classic Big House commencement with a well-known speaker, only to have this commencement fall through on us as well. 

I was also looking forward to having my family all together for the first time in years. My parents are divorced and both of my siblings have since moved away to begin their professional lives in Chicago. Since my older brother was not at his commencement as I had mentioned, the last time that the five members of my family were all together at the same place at the same time was my high school graduation back in 2016. This May was going to be the first time that both my parents and both my siblings would all be together, but now I’m not sure what the future holds. 

This past semester, I have actually been away from Ann Arbor. I am finishing my UMich degree remotely from New York City with an amazing internship that I got at The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. I was looking forward to flying in commencement weekend and seeing all of my friends in-person in Ann Arbor while we prepared to graduate. I was looking forward to catching up with them on everything that we’ve been up to this past semester while I was away.”

Hasan Ali, a Rackham student studying Electrical Engineering, is from Karachi, Pakistan.

Rackham student Hasan Ali.

Rackham student Hasan Ali. Buy this photo
Allison Engkvist/Daily

“It was the biggest bummer that I’ve ever seen. Honestly, it had me down. One thing that I was really looking forward to this whole academic year was the graduation itself. That’s the capstone of your whole journey. And for me that was something that when coming to the U.S., before I started my master’s, was an achievement or dreamlike moment, when it’s like the gown and the cap, and the family’s going to be there and then you get to graduate. It’s just an all-around amazing feeling. It hit me like a bus, like, ‘Oh my God, I’m never going to be able to experience that.’

When you come from an international country, the work ethic and the way things are in the U.S. is quite different from what it was for me back home. Getting in tune with that for the first semester was a hassle. I could not tell what was happening, I was all over the place. Things and logistics and the way people treat you and the way you’re supposed to go about things is also very different. Grasping that and getting yourself in line with that and second semester onwards, actually enjoying that, was a big achievement I would say. It gives you a new experience and perspective and honestly that’s one thing I’ve really taken away from this masters.

I like to play sports a lot — all of that has stopped. I was playing two leagues in the recreational sports league, the IM league. Soccer’s my go-to thing. That was something I would look forward to week in week out, and right now that’s all stopped so … it’s a different lifestyle right now. 

For these moments to be taken away, it kind of feels like you’ve been cheated. But at the same time, I do understand that it was a need of the time. But at the same time, you’re like, ‘Oh my God, why me?’”

Lillie Heyman, a Public Policy senior studying Women’s Equity Policy, is from Florham Park, N.J.

Public Policy senior Lillie Heyman.

Public Policy senior Lillie Heyman. Buy this photo
Allison Engkvist/Daily

“I sobbed within seconds. It’s almost tragic, in the most dramatic way. Ceremonies are really important to me. I’m someone who has a hard time with change, so for me in a transitional period as momentous as finishing 16 years of school and finishing college at the University of Michigan, I wanted that ceremony. For its symbolism, for the sentimental aspect of it, and just for a second be proud of all the work we’ve been doing together. 

All of the different ‘lasts’ that you have in the last month of school — your last time hanging out with your friends, your last time going to certain places, your last time being in the Big House, hearing all your friends’ names being read. In Ford, there’s only 80 of us, so we’ve all gotten pretty close, and having a Ford graduation too, together, is really important. Closing everything out in a symbolic way is really important. It happened so abruptly, I didn’t get to have the different lasts that people talk about and that I wanted very dearly.

I’m heavily involved in Dance Marathon, and I was looking forward to my big achievement being this year’s VictorThon. Its in-person form got canceled unfortunately, so we’re doing some kind of virtual VictorThon instead, but I was really looking forward to that 24-hour event and playing a large role in it. So, that’s also something I have to grapple with and work through my emotions as well. 

It’s unfortunate, the circumstances, because you almost think that we don’t have a right to be upset about these things because people are getting really sick, people are dying, and it’s a really hard topic. And it seems almost selfish to be upset about something like this, but I think we have a right to feel our emotions, and it’s important that we feel these emotions and important that we talk about them and process them and not feel bad about feeling this way.”

Victoria Li, an LSA senior studying Economics, is from Canton, Mich.

LSA senior Victoria Li.

LSA senior Victoria Li. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Victoria Li

“Oddly, I was shocked and not surprised at the same exact time. I remember being on the phone with a friend just 30 minutes prior to the official announcement of the cancellation of commencement. It honestly still feels surreal. My heart hurts, a lot. One moment I was a senior with a significant portion of my time in undergrad left. The next moment, the entire period between Spring Break and graduation was canceled, and I suddenly found myself having to say goodbye to some of the people who I’ve seen every day for the past few years.

My mother lives in D.C. and my dad lives in Michigan, so they were both planning on coming to celebrate this milestone with me. My graduation ceremony was very important to my family, as I am the only child who my parents could see graduate from a four-year university. My parents immigrated to the United States from China in their 20s in order to make sure I got the best education and opportunities possible. It’s disappointing that they cannot attend a ceremony that they have been looking forward to for most of their lives. 

I would say my greatest achievement during these past four years is how far I was able to push myself out of my comfort zone. College truly is the time where you can be whoever you want and find out who you truly are and where you fit into this enormous, complicated, exciting world. During my four years, I always put myself out there. I joined new, intimidating organizations, took risks and was a bit of a ‘yes woman.’ 

I will forever hold the time I had at the University of Michigan dearly to my heart.”

Bailey Delehant, an LSA senior studying Communications, is from Southlake, Texas.

LSA senior Bailey Delehant.

LSA senior Bailey Delehant. Buy this photo
Allison Engkvist/Daily

“It’s especially difficult for me because my immediate family is overseas. It’s been really stressful just trying to go through all the ‘what if’ scenarios and what all my options are and where I can go because it’s scarier to know that there isn’t really a home for me to go to. This is my home. 

I honestly think my greatest achievement was getting my job that I’m supposed to start in June, but now even that feels pretty uncertain, just with the way the economy is looking. I want to be excited about that, but I don’t think anybody has any answers right now. I think it’s kind of scary to think if things keep getting worse, or even if they don’t, it’s really just a mystery. As of right now, I should still be starting June 1, but it’s scary to think that even the biggest thing I accomplished could be taken away from me too, and no one can do anything about that. 

I’m really hopeful that (the company I’ll be working for is) not being affected too hard, but it’s really hard being someone who’s not ‘in it.’ I don’t know what’s happening. I’m on the outside. It’s such a big question mark.” 

Hattie Garratt, an LSA senior studying English, is from Chicago, Ill.

LSA senior Hattie Garratt.

LSA senior Hattie Garratt. Buy this photo
Allison Engkvist/Daily

“I was most looking forward to seeing my parents there to see me graduate. I was told by people in high school that I wouldn’t get into Michigan. There were people who believed in me, but I had a lot of people who didn’t believe in me or didn’t think I could get in. So, I was really looking forward to seeing them see me graduate. It would have felt like a full circle thing, like I had officially joined the club. 

I’m especially proud of the fact that I’m graduating with honors, with distinction. Going into college it was a goal of mine to do college to the best of my ability and really excel in all my classes. There were definitely a few professors that I had that were really rewarding teachers but really made me work for the grade, and I think looking back at those really difficult classes, it would have been rewarding to see them at graduation. 

That’s what really hurts about graduation being canceled — is that it is being reduced to that piece of paper when it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like a lot more than a piece of paper. 

Initially, what I would like the University to do is to issue some kind of more formalized apology for canceling commencement. I’d like some kind of get-together, like, ‘Hey, we’re going to hold something in August for you guys.’ What I suspect is going to happen is, ‘Hey, if you want, you can come to winter graduation.’

Nobody gets it except for all the seniors who it’s happening to right now.”

Hannah Brauer, an LSA senior studying Communication & Media and Creative Writing & Literature, is from Grosse Pointe, Mich. Brauer is also a columnist for The Statement.

LSA senior Hannah Brauer.

LSA senior Hannah Brauer. Buy this photo
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“I really wanted to have the RC commencement. It’s very special because it’s this living-learning community that I’ve been part of for the last four years. All the senior class comes together because you spend a lot of time together freshman and sophomore year and not a lot of time after that, so I thought it would have been cool to kind of come together, actually meet with all the faculty that I’ve had these relationships with over the years. And there’s also a parade of bagpipes that they do around campus. They start at East Quad — or they start at the League and then go to East Quad, I think. Actually, I don’t know which way they go, because I will never do it. But then you get a minute on stage to do whatever you want to do. So that was kind of more intimate and more personal than the Big House one would have been.

I’m a freelance photographer. I do grad pictures. And it’s really interesting to see, especially what’s happening to freelance artists right now, who are based on gigs instead of hourly wages.”

Maisey Schuler, an LSA senior studying Evolutionary Anthropology, is from Jackson, Mich.

LSA senior Maisey Schuler.

LSA senior Maisey Schuler. Buy this photo
Allison Engkvist/Daily

“I’m a part of the tuba section in the Michigan Marching Band, and we’re already talking about having a section wide (alternative celebration). There are only about 25 of us, so we feel if by the time May rolls around, if it’s safe enough for the group of us to meet up and celebrate, we’re going to try to do that if commencement itself isn’t an option. 

I worked two to three jobs a semester, and I managed to fund my own housing and tuition, in part through scholarships, but I’m damn proud of that. And this is not going to take that away at all. 

I was on a bus heading to Indy for the men’s basketball tournament. We had made it to Indiana so we were more than halfway there. We got the call that we had to head back because school was canceled, and they didn’t want us traveling. And then the next day they canceled the tournament itself. So, that was really tough. I had my last performance in the band without even knowing. And I’m also in a concert band that also was canceled as well. So, it’s a little tough to have that happen all at once.”

Alexa Klemundt, an LSA senior studying Biology, is from Hesperia, Mich.

LSA senior Alexa Klemundt.

LSA senior Alexa Klemundt. Buy this photo
Allison Engkvist/Daily

“I was definitely in shock, and there was definitely a lot of sadness. It especially hit for me, being a first-generation student. I didn’t know what to expect when I came to college, and for four years I was so excited, like, ‘Oh my god, I am going to graduate from this amazing university all on my own, with no help from parents.’ I didn’t have any older siblings … to tell me what to expect, you know? And just to have them take it away kind of hurt. And the line in their email didn’t really help, just saying we’re going to celebrate 2020 grads in the future, didn’t really give me any hope that they were going to do anything for us. 

I think I’m most proud of not giving up. It’s especially frustrating, it was very hard, I felt very lonely, very isolated. I didn’t know anybody, and it didn’t help that they slapped me on North (Campus). I think I’m just more proud of sticking with it, seeing it through, not giving up. 

Just coming out of my last undergraduate exam, I’m never going to get that satisfaction of finishing and handing in that exam, walking out and just being able to breathe because I did it. There is no satisfaction. Shutting my computer is not the same as being able to walk out of that classroom for the last time.”

Megan Rigney, a Rackham student studying Urban Planning and Public Health, is from Ann Arbor, Mich.

Rackham student Megan Rigney.

Rackham student Megan Rigney. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Megan Rigney

“I was deeply saddened. I suspected it was coming, but while reading the email, I experienced a hit deep in the chest. Sharing that sadness with my classmates and friends was comforting.

I have worked incredibly hard these past three years, as have my classmates. We have shared moments of anxiety, crying and celebrating success along the way. I was excited for a moment for all of us to be congratulated by our professors who we have come to love. Two of my brothers are also graduating this year, and so we had several big family plans for the graduation weekend. Additionally, I was looking forward to celebrating my boyfriend’s and his brother’s graduation with his family from Japan who I would be meeting for the first time.

It is incredibly heartwarming to see how supportive our community is through social media and other virtual channels in this time of crisis. Supportive professors and peers are the keys to making it through this difficult transition and uncertain time.”

Courtney Klee, an Architecture senior, is from Clarkston, Mich.

Architecture senior Courtney Klee.

Architecture senior Courtney Klee. Buy this photo
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“Something really big for seniors in our last semester of architecture is that it’s called our Wallenberg Semester — it’s about social justice and our topic for the semester was based on a bell hooks essay and the title of our Wallenberg semester was ‘In the Margins.’ Each of us had our own individual thesis that we’re working on and at the end of the semester, a week before graduation, we have our Wallenberg Exhibition. This is like the most thoughtful, most intense work I’ve done in my life. This is the first time I’ve felt this connected to something I’m passionate about.

The fact that I may not get to put my work out into the public or be a part of the Wallenberg Semester where we have guest judges come from all over and the final decision of who gets … awarded money to travel for Wallenberg. We don’t know if that’s going to happen. It’s normally two days before graduation. 

My professor emailed us today, and she’s so positive and so uplifting, she’s like my favorite woman at this whole University. She asked, ‘How do we maintain the spirit of Raoul Wallenberg and now that we are in the margins, and we’re working in isolation … how can we build a community, how can we work in solidarity with each other?’ I’m trying to be optimistic about it. 

In Wallenberg, we get to travel, so the week before Spring Break we actually weren’t here for classes. We flew out to Las Vegas. We camped in the Valley of Fire. We went to the Grand Canyon. We stayed in an architecture commune. … I came back from Spring Break with a totally different mindset, really ready to work and put my all into my thesis. 

People are trying to be really optimistic, and I think it’s because of that mindset, that travel. But I think it’s slowly starting to sink in that people’s parents aren’t going to see the first child in their household walk across the stage.”

Editor in Chief Elizabeth Lawrence can be reached at esla@umich.edu. Daily Staff Reporter Maya Goldman can be reached at mayagold@umich.edu.