For underclassmen, the shortened semester was an irritating disruption. For seniors, it was a total upheaval. There was no closure.  

The Class of 2020 hugged their closest friends and scattered back home without so much as a goodbye to many people they had shared many years. Acquaintances who laughed in hallways or swapped inside jokes simply disappeared.

The end of the school year should be a happy time for high school and college seniors—one door is closing and another is opening—with a lot of fanfare in between. But we know this year is very different, and seniors are facing a lot of disappointing cancelations: In-person commencements, graduation parties, senior nights, proms, and other special events. 

More memorable, more meaningful

2020 has made a reputation of taking the otherwise ordinary and making it into nothing we have ever seen before.  This graduation season is unlike any other as graduates celebrate their milestones amid the pandemic and demonstrations.

Many families are finding new, unique ways to mark their milestones and fend off disappointment. My daughter Mika, currently a high school senior, was devastated with the prospect of spending senior spring without her friends. She worked extremely hard throughout high school and was so excited to spend this spring building relationships and connecting with classmates she hadn’t had time to get to know well. Just as the stress of college acceptance was winding down, she was forced to leave campus with few good byes and many unknowns. 

As a family, we made a conscious effort to honor this important time in her life. 

Completion of high school is momentous. The average student goes to school for about 170 days a year, so counting a year of kindergarten, 12 years of schooling equals roughly 2,200 days. That is a lot of school. 

The end of high school (usually) means the end of free education, free laundry and free food. It is the end of living at home and sleeping in all summer. The end of high school also signifies the beginning of adulthood; the start of true independence. It is the beginning of determining  a career, securing a place to live, and for some, finding additional education to pursue. 

So, on graduation day, we had an impromptu celebration with DIY home-made items. We dressed Mika in a sheet secured by a binder clip, with a costume graduation cap decorated by her brother, and had her walk through the house to the new version of “Pomp and Circumstance by Lizzo and The New York Philharmonic . . . to a makeshift stage with toilet paper decorations. There we gave her an internet-printed diploma and our personal speeches. 

My husband read the inspiring commencement speech from Steve Jobs which had relevant advice for our particular daughter, and we made a slide show of her from birth to age 18. Both the preparation and the spontaneous celebration brought us closer together as a family and gave us a chance to truly honor Mika directly.  It was actually more personal, definitely memorable, and possibly more meaningful than the traditional large one-size-fits-all tent graduation. 

This year, we have learned not to take rituals for granted.

There may be a silver lining in new rituals. Commencements have changed over the years, becoming larger and less centered on the students, and they’ve lost some of the social intimacy they used to have.  The cancellation of traditional commencements is giving families the opportunity to celebrate in new, more personal ways.

Schools, communities and families have come up with creative ways to make graduation just as special as it would have been—from  home ceremonies like ours, zoom calls with extended family, drive-by graduations . . . to drive-in movie theatre graduations.  Arizona State had a robot graduation and students built a quarantine University graduation on Minecraft

Inspiring speeches and timely encouragement 

This year’s graduates are staggering into a world that is in some ways unrecognizable. 

More than 100,000 Americans have died; tens of millions are out of work; entire industries have crumbled; and the nation is erupting with social justice protests. And graduating in the midst of these worldwide challenges will have enduring implications on the Class of 2020: for their memories, their earning power, and their view of what it means to have a functional and just society. 

For these young adults, the pandemic and demonstrations represents not just a national crisis, but also a defining time. Never has a graduating class been called to step into the future with more purpose, passion, vision, energy and hope.

While the graduating class of 2020 didn’t have the chance for a traditional physical celebration because of COVID-19, celebrities and even former presidents came together to make sure their shining moment was special.  

Michelle Obama teamed up with her husband President Obama, YouTube and many other celebrities to honor students. Dear Class of 2020 was a virtual commencement celebration that brought together inspirational leaders, artists, and creators to recognize graduates, their families, and their communities. 

“I hope you carry these uncommon circumstances as a badge of honor.” 
– Tim Cook

“This graduation season is anything but ordinary, and that’s all the more reason why the class of 2020 deserves extraordinary advice, heartfelt encouragement and hard-won wisdom about facing new challenges in an uncertain world,” said Russlyn Ali, chief executive and cofounder of XQ Institute.  

Michelle Obama spoke of the many social issues facing our nation, encouraging activism beyond hashtags and posts. And her personal advice included “What kind of person do you want to be? Be sure to use your voice for things that matter.”

Mr. Obama’s comments focused on inspiring graduates to actively work for change.  “As scary and uncertain as these times may be, they are also a wake-up call, and they are an incredible opportunity for your generation. You don’t have to accept the world as it is. You can make it into the world as it should be and could be. You can create a new normal, one that is fairer, and gives everyone opportunity, and treats everyone equally, and builds bridges between people instead of dividing them.”

Etsy

History will shape this graduating class for the rest of their lives

School is often a refuge from the gusts of history. But events that rupture the classroom routine—from President Kennedy’s assassination to 9/11—tend to be the ones that stick with students forever. Which helps explain why young activists view this as a now-or-never moment for their cohorts. They know the pandemic will shape and potential define their futures, even if it’s not yet clear exactly how.

And the Class of 2020 doesn’t just include the leaders of tomorrow; many are already working for change in their own communities right now.

“The class of 2020 won’t be defined by what we lost to this virus but by how we responded to it. The world is yours now. And I can’t wait to see what you make of it.” 

Malala Yousafzai (who is also missing her own graduation)

HIGHLIGHT OF THE WEEK 

While the pandemic cancelled graduation ceremonies across the country, that hasn’t stopped graduates from building backyard stages, honking through school campuses and live-streaming from living rooms.  

If there’s one thing this class has embraced is that we all have a choice of how to view the world and our circumstances, and we always have a choice about how we react. 2020 graduates have proven their resilience in embracing a new set of norms with grace, gratitude and joy. I think this holds a deeper value than many things  you learn in a textbook!

 Creative at-home ceremonies

Weekly Challenge  

Camille Tokerud

Honor a special 2020 graduate in your life.  Here are 11 ideas for getting creative and celebrating the milestone virtually

Kendall Webb
Executive Director, JustGive.org

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