By Sevía Gonzales / New Mexico News Port
Earlier this year, during the fall semester of her senior year, Gracie Ridgeway sat in her virology class at Montana State University listening to guest lecturer Emmie de Wit make a presentation on the nature of viruses and how they spread.
At the end of the talk, de Wit, a virology Ph.D. and Chief of the Molecular Pathogenesis Unit at the Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Montana, took questions from the class.
“Someone asked her… [if] we know when the next one is going to happen and [if] we know what kind of virus it’s going to be,” Ridgeway said. “She said… it’s expected to be soon and we expect that it will be a novel coronavirus.”
Currently under coronavirus quarantine with her family in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Ridgeway said that the timing of de Wit’s lecture now seems bizarre.
“[de Wit] said it so casually … I didn’t think much of it at all,” Ridgeway said. “I definitely am so shook it actually happened.”
Even after the presentation, she never thought a pandemic was something that would affect her so soon.
For Ridgeway and nearly 26 million other U.S. college students whose schools have closed due to the coronavirus epidemic, much has changed. Classes continue from home and the future seems more uncertain than ever.
The end of college marks uncharted territory for students, as they prepare for a distinctly new chapter in their lives. Having worked hard for the standard four years, or longer perhaps, graduation is the mark of this achievement.
UC Berkeley senior Kobie Boslough, one of about 4 million college students set to graduate during the 2019-2020 academic year, said she’s disappointed to be missing out on many of the hallmark moments leading up to graduation. However, she feels fortunate to be at the end of her college career.
“I’m getting out in the nick of time,” Boslough said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if this lasted into the fall, which makes me feel glad that I’m getting out [now], with a degree, even though I won’t get a job.”
Wary of bringing the virus back to her parents in Albuquerque, Boslough hasn’t yet made her way home from California. Instead, she’s been isolating in her off-campus apartment and trying her best to push through her last few weeks of coursework.
Over 4,000 colleges and universities nationwide –Berkeley among them– have closed and moved instruction to remote platforms, like Zoom and Discord. Boslough said that the transition hasn’t been easy and that learning from home just isn’t the same.
“It just feels like such a joke when it’s online,” Boslough said. “I’m not motivated to even do the things I like.”
University of New Mexico senior Devin Maez, who is set to start medical school in July through the university’s BA/MD program, said his commitment to his studies has only been bolstered, though he wishes there was more he could do to support the immediate cause.
“The current pandemic has given me further motivation to pursue my future career as a medical professional,” Maez said. “If I were a physician already, I would be able to contribute to the fight against COVID-19 and do my part to serve our community as best as I could.”
Although Maez and Boslough’s experiences have been very different, their disappointment for missing those important cap and gown moments on stage is shared.
“My peers [and I] have worked tirelessly the last few years to reach such an achievement and this ceremony would’ve been a celebration to honor such efforts,” Maez said.
For Boslough, the personal moments of closure she’ll be missing –like visiting her favorite restaurants one last time and leaving a goodbye note in one of the university’s bathroom stalls– deepen this loss.
“I can’t do any of that cliché movie stuff [now],” she said.
Erin Archibeck, a senior at the University of Notre Dame, agreed that the lack of closure and the suddenness of the pandemic’s toll have been difficult to come to terms with.
“It is really sad to be in college for four years and then just randomly, abruptly, not [be],” she said.
Archibeck happened to be home in Albuquerque, visiting her family during spring break when she got the news that Notre Dame would be closing because of coronavirus. What was supposed to be a week-long visit has turned into a month and a half long stay.
“I only expected to be gone for six days,” Archibeck said. “I have laundry that’s not washed and all my stuff is just sitting around [at my apartment]… I don’t even think I made my bed.”
A long-distance runner on the university’s track and field team, Archibeck said she was looking forward to closing out her athletic career alongside her teammates, before heading off to her Northwestern University Ph.D. program in the fall.
The coronavirus closures have cut many college sports’ seasons short, and a recent NCAA decision will grant affected athletes an additional year of eligibility with their teams. Archibeck has decided to take advantage of this opportunity.
“I’ve talked to my coaches… I’m going to do a master’s program [at Notre Dame] –just so I can finish off my running career– and then go to Northwestern after that,” she said.
Though she’s been forced to re-think many of her future plans, she said she feels that the price she’s paying is small.
“Compared to a lot of people who lost their jobs or have gotten sick, not being able to walk down a stage with a cap and gown on graduation is not really a big sacrifice,” Archibeck said. “The fact that I can even say I’m graduating from college is in itself privileged.”
Ridgeway said she feels similarly.
“It’s hard to vent about how it’s affected me when I know it could always be worse,” she said. “My thoughts on it change every day but I think that’s okay — to just sort of let it change and let it be in flux.”
More than 26 million Americans have lost their jobs since COVID-19 hit the U.S. in mid-March, pushing the unemployment rate above 15%. For soon-to-be-graduates, the economic downturn has been sobering.
College graduates who enter the workforce during a recession earn less –for at least 10 to 15 years– compared to those who graduate during times of economic growth, one Stanford University study suggests.
If there’s any comfort to be found, Boslough said, it’s in the fact that she won’t be the only one facing uncertainty in the months and years to come.
“I’m kind of glad that everyone’s going to be in it together… that I’m not going to be alone, flailing after this,” Boslough said.
Ridgeway said she too feels a bond with her fellow students and that she thinks everyone who is getting ready to graduate is having to re-evaluate and adapt. Nevertheless, she said she feels that the forced deceleration of life has come with upsides.
“I can remember vividly so many times I’ve wish[ed] everything would just pause… and we could all rest,” Ridgeway said. “Now it’s here but since the circumstances of why it’s here are scary, you don’t want to look at it as a time to just pause and rest.”
But, she said she doesn’t see the point in feeling guilty about savoring this extra time.
“It’s okay to just celebrate the fact that you get to stay home all day,” Ridgeway said. “It doesn’t mean you’re celebrating a pandemic, it just means you’re trying to make the best out of a scary situation.”
Even though it will be nothing like she imagined, she said she is excited to graduate alongside her peers and move forward into the next stage of life, however that might look.
For the class of 2020, little is traditional and the path forward is far from clear. Their final exam is not one that can be filled in on a scantron sheet. This year’s seniors have been put to a very different kind of test, one for which no answer key exists.
“At the end of the day, nobody has an answer, nobody has an end date,” Ridgeway said. “It is a big test in how comfortable you can get with ambiguity.”
Sevía Gonzales is a reporter for the New Mexico News Port. She can be reached on Twitter @GonzalesSevia or at firstname.lastname@example.org.