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I wasn’t surprised when the University of Michigan announced a virtual graduation commencement in February. 

How could I be? After over a year of the COVID-19 pandemic, it seemed almost routine to keep delaying expectations of normality. While COVID-19 cases in Michigan were in a lull at the time, given the predicted spikes in daily cases around the winter holiday season, it was clear that celebrations could result in an upward trend. Today, with Michigan seeing the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the country, it seems risky to host a mega-graduation ceremony in the Big House. At the time of the announcement, however, University President Mark Schlissel faced considerable backlash from the University’s graduating seniors. 

Almost immediately, Public Policy senior Tal Lipkin started a petition for an in-person graduation ceremony. The petition currently has over 5,800 signatures from seniors, parents and alumni. In the weeks following, it was hard to ignore the blue signs adorned with “HONK to support UMich Class of 2021 IN-PERSON, SAFE OPT-IN Grad Ceremony” placed around campus. 

“I deserve a graduation,” LSA senior Riley McMahon publicly commented on the petition two months ago. 

On March 15, Lipkin updated the petition with a call to action. She urged parents and students to call and email Schlissel and the University’s Board of Regents all day to push for a compromise. Eventually, their efforts did partially pay off. On March 25, Schlissel announced the opening of Michigan Stadium for a live viewing of the virtual graduation commencement. 

Even so, it’s hard to ignore the disappointment of the class of 2021. We were the only year to miss out on the end of junior and senior year, a time usually marked by milestones and celebrations. On top of that, job prospects look bleak — the U.S. unemployment rate is at 6.0%, which is still 2.5% higher than the pre-pandemic levels of February 2020. Enrollment in post-graduate programs increased significantly last year: Medical schools saw an 18% increase and law schools saw a whopping 32% increase for the 2020-2021 application cycle. Many graduates see more schooling as their only option in a sparse job market. 

Yet, as warmer weather washes over Ann Arbor, the city is teeming with life. I see cap and gown-clad students every time I pass through Law Quadrangle. Student photographers are still advertising their rates on social media platforms, and nearly all my friends have someone taking pictures for them. Despite the disappointments, the class of 2021 isn’t shying away from graduation celebrations. 

So, how do seniors really feel about graduating during a pandemic? 

A subdued graduation 

“I actually don’t even know what day graduation is,” Sarah Minnis confessed to me in a Zoom interview with a laugh.

Minnis is a first-generation college student and a LSA senior majoring in Biopsychology, Cognition, and Neuroscience. While she’s proud to be the first of her family to graduate in May, Minnis doesn’t put too much stake in the ceremony itself. 

“I know that I’m getting my degree and I know I worked hard. I don’t need a crowd watching me,” Minnis told me. “It’s important that I’m the first person in my family. But it’s the act of going through school and completing the degree. It’s not the graduation ceremony itself that’s important.”

As I talked to more graduating seniors, I realized that this viewpoint wasn’t unique. 

“I’m not super bummed about this whole literal graduation,” Timmy Li, a LSA senior majoring in Biomolecular Science, said in a Zoom interview. “Graduating is not the biggest deal to me. It’s more about ending senior year overall.” 

I found myself in agreement with Minnis and Li. I’ve never been one to seek out the limelight, and the thought of random strangers clapping for me always felt strange. Perhaps I had set my expectations low — ever since the start of the pandemic, I had never thought an in-person commencement would be possible. So when virtual commencement was announced, I didn’t feel let down. 

On top of that, many degree programs are having their own virtual graduation ceremonies apart from the main commencement. The Ross School of Business is holding a student-only event on April 29, commencement on April 30 and a separate name-reading ceremony as well. The School of Nursing is filming their graduates walking and receiving a diploma in person, and then streaming the video during their virtual commencement. 

The University’s LSA Program in Biology, the umbrella branch that my Ecology and Evolutionary Biology major falls under, asked their graduates for pictures and contributions to be compiled into a short video. It’s not much, but there are ways to personalize the graduation experience without a live commencement. 

But I have a clear bias. I’ll be attending medical school in July, and that feels like a bigger cause for celebration than my undergraduate graduation. I’ve already equated my white coat ceremony, which marks the start of a medical career, as my pseudo undergraduate graduation. Close one chapter, start another. In my mind, it kills two birds with one stone. 

However, not everyone is planning on more school immediately after graduation, or at all. For many, this Winter 2021 commencement can symbolize the end of being a student, at least for a while. While some are excited about the prospect of a job, others feel differently. 

“Once you’re done with school, you lose structure,” Li told me. “I’d rather have that school stress and know that college is happening. In that sense, I don’t want to graduate.”

I’ve found that the disappointment of graduating seniors may not surround the physical commencement, but rather a sense of lost opportunities and experiences. How do we find ways to celebrate graduation so we actually feel like we’re graduating?

Closure in an unusual Ann Arbor

Graduation often implies a sense of closure. Graduates want a chance to see their friends, visit their favorite bars one last time, round out their summer with a trip around the world. I know I do. 

I think of closure as a well-rounded ending, a way to mark the end of a life chapter. Without it, leaving your college town, a home away from home, can seem abrupt and sudden. Completing our last classes, saying goodbyes to friends and experiencing our last moments in Ann Arbor are all ways that we create endings for ourselves. 

For the class of 2021, finding closure in Ann Arbor is less celebratory than usual. Most undergraduate classes have been taught online this winter. Most graduating seniors’ last class will be over Zoom, a weak substitute for a bustling lecture hall. Michigan restaurants and bars must operate at 50% capacity for indoor dining and close before 11 p.m., per Gov. Whitmer’s March 5 executive order. For those comfortable venturing out, it won’t be quite the bar-hopping adventure we expected. And many seniors may not feel safe doing this at all — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still defines indoor dining as a high-risk activity.

“The real thing I’m disappointed about is that the pandemic affected our senior year,” Li told me. 

Li was upset that he wouldn’t be able to celebrate his last weeks in Ann Arbor with his friends. 

“We want to do some fun things we haven’t done before, but it’s hard with all these rules and restrictions. It feels like everything is closed or closes early,” Li said.

Rachel Quigley, a School of Nursing senior, agreed with Li.

“I’m sad that I’m missing out on a normal commencement, going to bars and just doing stuff that seniors do,” Quigley said in a Zoom interview. “It’s not the same and it makes me feel like we got cheated out of a huge part of our lives.”

We often hear that our college years are the best of our lives. In this light, Quigley’s feeling of being “cheated out” of a significant experience makes sense, especially at the University of Michigan. The dominant narrative about the University is one of pride and school spirit. In my early years of college, upperclassmen often told me that Ann Arbor was a “magical” city. I vividly remember taking a late-night Uber two years ago with a close friend who at the time was set to graduate in a month.

“Enjoy every minute of it,” she told me. “The years will fly by before you know it.”

Yet, Ann Arbor rarely felt magical for me. I struggled to find a community in such a large student body my first two years of college. Once I felt like I’d finally found my place at the University, the pandemic hit and classes went online soon after. I had less than a year of living in an Ann Arbor I loved and enjoyed before everything looked different. I do love this little town, but I’m also ready to move on and start fresh in a different part of the world. 

I’ve always found it hard to establish myself in a city that I’ll eventually leave. I know the next few years of my life will be spent moving from city to city, never quite settling down in one place before moving on to the next. Ann Arbor sometimes felt transitory for me, a temporary place to live before I moved somewhere else. When the city’s landscape changed with closures and restrictions, it made it even harder to solidify any connection I had before I graduated. 

For some graduates, a changed Ann Arbor can be disappointing. But others disagree. Minnis told me that she’d always had to keep a job in college to pay bills. Ann Arbor doesn’t look very different for her. 

“Ann Arbor is the same for me. I go to school during the week and go to my job on the weekend,” Minnis said. 

Creating a satisfactory ending in Ann Arbor is difficult enough for the class of 2021, but closure isn’t always synonymous with a geographical location. 

Samantha Kao graduated from the School of Music, Theatre & Dance in Fall 2020 with a degree in multidisciplinary studies and a concentration in piano. Kao was disappointed with the University’s fall graduation activities, which consisted of videos and social media posts. 

“It felt very anticlimactic,” Kao told me over Zoom. “I had a cocktail of feelings. I felt scared, disappointed, left out.”

Kao expressed frustration with SMTD’s response to the pandemic last summer. She wasn’t able to access the School of Music building or its practice rooms until late August. Insistent on doing a senior recital, Kao managed to get an electric keyboard from one of her friends and do a video recording of her performance. But compared to a live piano recital, a recording on an electric keyboard was a poor substitute. 

“I had all these plans to fulfill and round out my music career … and it just didn’t happen,” Kao said. 

Kao’s sense of closure came less from Ann Arbor and more from a sense of lost musical opportunities, a problem that many music and art graduates are facing across the country. 

Kao has since been taking a break from school and searching for jobs. After suffering from severe tendonitis that affected her piano playing, she isn’t sure where to turn next. For Kao, an atypical graduation celebration felt like adding insult to injury. 

“I felt like it wasn’t much (for others), but for me, it was a lot,” Kao said.

Downplaying achievements 

The U.S. has suffered over 500,000 deaths from the COVID-19 pandemic. The state of Michigan has a death toll of over 17,000. In this climate, celebrating anything can seem cruel and out of touch. I feel the need to keep my celebrations private and mellow. Eating a meal outside, spending time with my family, saying my goodbyes to Ann Arbor — that feels like the type of celebration I deserve. 

At the same time, graduating from the University of Michigan does feel like a large accomplishment. As one of the country’s top public schools with a 23% acceptance rate, graduating from this university is something to be proud of. Growing up in Metro Detroit, the University was often branded as the school to attend, so much so that I barely thought twice before accepting my admissions offer. It seemed like the natural thing to do. 

Graduating in the middle of a pandemic means reconciling your achievements with the current social climate. Celebrate, but not too much. Keep your celebrations private, but still enjoy your time with close family and friends. Don’t rub salt in the wounds of those suffering. This mind game can be exhausting for graduating seniors who feel like they deserve more recognition. 

After graduating, Kao struggled with this same feeling. Kao managed to graduate a semester early after changing her major a few times. She told me that she was dealing with personal issues at the time but still worked hard to keep her grades up and save on an extra semester of tuition. Instead of a celebration, she turned to a search for jobs, which seemed like an abrupt end to her school years. 

“I was really proud of myself but felt like I didn’t have a way to celebrate that,” Kao said. “The most celebratory thing I did was I got a tiramisu from Costco and ate it with my roommates.”

This feeling of invisibility is common for those graduating during a global crisis. Michelle Obama addressed this in her virtual commencement speech to 2020 graduates last year. 

“For those of you who feel invisible: Please know that your story matters. Your ideas matter. Your experiences matter. Your vision for what our world can and should be matters,” Obama said. 

Gaby Aguirre, an international student from Ecuador graduating from the Business School in May, understands this sentiment. However, Aguirre is trying her best to stay positive and appreciate her accomplishments in her own way. 

“It has been my dream to graduate from a U.S. college since I was in high school,” Aguirre told me over Zoom. “Just the idea of being able to go outside and take my pictures with a cap and gown from the University of Michigan is enough for me.”

After four years, Aguirre still finds it hard to believe that she is attending a U.S. university and one of the top business schools in the country. Aguirre’s parents worked hard to get her where she is today, and her family plans on flying to Michigan in a few weeks to celebrate together. Aguirre is grateful for that. 

“(International students) don’t take graduation from a U.S. college as granted,” Aguirre said. “Sometimes when I talk to classmates, I wish they would appreciate it better.”

Aguirre insists that there are ways to celebrate graduation this year without disregarding one’sachievements. She points to social media as a way to spread the news and boost confidence for graduates. 

“Of course it would be more emotional to go in and walk and be there,” Aguirre said. “But it’s still a huge achievement for all of us. So I think I’m just happy and excited.”

Celebrations in a pandemic 

We may have a mostly virtual commencement, but that isn’t stopping us from celebrating graduation. 

Several students I spoke to had made arrangements for family day trips to Ann Arbor to celebrate on a smaller scale. Ann Arbor restaurants are already filling their reservations for graduation weekend. Popular Italian joint Mani Osteria has opened a waitlist for outdoor seating, The Earle has created a special menu for celebrating families, and reservations at Asian restaurant Pacific Rim are going fast. 

Aguirre looks forward to celebrating her achievement with her family. She doesn’t mind that her celebration will be more intimate without the crowd at the Big House. 

“If you want the real feeling of making someone proud, you can just look at your parents’ eyes. And that’s it, you know?” Aguirre said. 

Aguirre’s family plans to watch the virtual commencement in their hotel room while Aguirre views it at the Big House. Afterward, they’ll leave for a road trip around Michigan. Aguirre looks forward to celebrating with a mini-vacation while still following COVID safety protocols. 

“They’re making my graduation an excuse to travel,” Aguirre told me with a laugh. 

Other seniors are trying their hand at small gatherings with just their close friends and family. Quigley plans to throw a small ceremony at her house in Ann Arbor, as all her roommates and their families are vaccinated already. 

“We’re going to have food catered to our house and have our own mini graduation,” Quigley said. “We’re all going to give a speech too.”

Kao is also waiting until her friends get vaccinated to hold her outdoor graduation celebration.

“I’m super close to feeling comfortable being around more people than my bubble,” Kao told me. “I think that would be the closure that I would have wanted.” 

Regardless of celebrations, nearly everyone I spoke to wanted to soak in the city of Ann Arbor before they moved out. Many students took advantage of remote learning as a chance to leave their apartment and explore different parts of Michigan as well. 

“It opened the door for me to do different activities that I don’t normally do,” Aguirre said. “We’ll drive up to Port Huron, or play sand volleyball in Elbel field, or go study in a coffee shop. In my four years, I had never gone to a coffee shop to study.”

I’ve been trying to do the same. I go for a hike in Ann Arbor’s parks a couple of times a week, usually in the middle of a workday to avoid the crowd. I stash my phone deep in my drawstring bag and hike in silence through Barton Nature Center, Bird Hills Nature Area, remote parts of Nichols Arboretum. It feels like closure for me — a way to say a private, silent goodbye to the city I’ve called home the last four years. 

I’ll be leaving my Ann Arbor studio apartment at the end of April to make space for my summer subletter. Two weeks before commencement, my parents have asked me if I have a plan for graduation at least five times. Truthfully, I still don’t know. If this year has taught me anything, agendas and itineraries are meaningless. I’m tired of making them. 

At the end of the day, I have no idea how to feel about graduating during such an unconventional year. But I’m okay with waiting until May 1 to find out. For now, I think I’ll go where the wind takes me, drift in this city until I no longer can. Breathe it in before packing up for my next adventure.

Statement Contributor Trina Pal can be reached at trpal@umich.edu.