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2020 graduates reflect on lack of traditional commencement

LOS ANGELES — High schools and universities are saluting the class of 2020 virtually this year, due to the unexpected and unrelenting coronavirus.

The unprecedented turn of events has made the class of 2020’s senior year unlike any other.

Postponed or canceled are proms, grad night, end-of-year parties, graduation bashes and all of the pomp and circumstance a traditional commencement provides — all signaling the completion of an educational rite of passage.

Instead of a momentous occasion, thousands of graduates find themselves staring at a computer screen as they listen to deans and school principals wax lyrical about their achievements over the last four years, while celebrity commencement speakers, including former President Barack Obama, spout encouraging words before sending them out into an uncertain world.   

Obama gave the virtual commencement address at a ceremony for graduates of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) on May 16. The two-hour, televised event, “Show Me Your Walk HBCU Edition” celebrated more than 27,000 students from 78 schools.

“As young African Americans, you’ve been exposed, earlier than some, to the world as it is,” Obama said. “But as young HBCU grads, your education has also shown you the world as it ought to be.”

Due to the rapid spread of the coronavirus, Los Angeles school officials announced in early March that the nation’s second-largest school system would shut down its 900 campuses serving more than 670,000 students beginning March 16. The closure was initially scheduled for two weeks but is still in effect. Students were forced to continue their education online.

The result of the shutdown left some students shocked, angry, and disappointed.

During his daily briefing on April 30, Mayor Eric Garcetti spoke to the class of 2020.

“You think about your future and the next steps that you will take and all the hard work that you put into your entire childhood to finally get to a place where many of you were looking at going to college,” he said. “Instead of having all those celebrations you’ve had to trade in your cap and gown for masks and gloves. This is not the spring that you hoped for. This is not the spring you deserved. We’re not going to let this disease crush your dreams.”

Some graduates spoke about how the coronavirus squelched their graduation celebrations, dimmed some hopes and negatively affected their final academic year.

Aiyana Da’Briel is a 17-year-old senior at Hamilton High School, who is also the president of the Southern Region Youth Advisory Board for the United Black Student Unions of California. She will study business management at Dillard University in the fall.

“No one saw this coming,” Da’Briel said. “What hurts the most is we had our last day and didn’t know it. There were no formal goodbyes. Some people I will never see again.

“That part hurts more than [missing] a prom or graduation,” Da’Briel added. “Studying online is awful. I need to be in front of someone. I thrive off of other people’s energy. Everything we worked for is being thrown away.

“Prom isn’t something you work for but it is a big moment. Every generation has had it and in a flash, it was gone. I didn’t want to go to graduation. I don’t care about the pomp and circumstance.”

Nia Holden is a 17-year-old senior at Sierra Canyon School who is looking forward to studying sociology at Columbia University in the fall. 

“I’m going to miss not being able to walk across the stage and have my diploma handed to me with my family and friends watching,” Holden said. “I feel cheated because we all worked for it. Every day you think about your graduation. This just can’t be happening in my senior year.

“To commemorate my senior year, my friends and I joke about dressing up and Facetiming each other,” she said. “This whole thing upsets me greatly. It leaves me speechless thinking about it.”

Amiri Lynn is a 17-year-old senior at Hamilton High School who wants to study business at Santa Monica College and eventually become a real estate agent like his uncle.

“When the schools closed, it sucked,” said Lynn, who had planned to go to the senior prom and the senior day trip to Disneyland. “What sucks most is that I can’t see my friends in person. Thankfully, I’m able to keep in touch with my friends through Facetime. They’re all going to different colleges.

“I also won’t be able to finish playing lacrosse,” he added. “I’m really disappointed about sports. A lot of hard work we put in got thrown away. It was my last year to play. I don’t care about walking. As long as I get my diploma, it’s fine.” 

Madison Brown is a 17-year-old senior at St. Bernard High School in Playa Del Rey who is the Associated Student Body President and was this year’s homecoming queen. The Inglewood native, who played varsity soccer and softball and participated in a number of school activities, plans to study health sciences and psychology at Howard University in the fall. Brown, who would have graduated May 29, wants to be a doctor specializing in obstetrics and gynecology.

“The activities being canceled hit me hard,” said Brown, the sixth of seven siblings. “I watched my siblings go to prom. Not having physical ceremonies hit a sweet spot in my heart. I miss waking up and going to school. I love learning. I don’t like brushing my hair to sit in front of a computer. I feel robbed, but I’m learning that it’s not the end of the world.”

USC President Carol Lynn Folt led the university’s virtual graduation May 15.

Folt said USC decided to postpone, but not eliminate, all USC in-person commencement 2020 activities.

“We know how important an in-person commencement is to our seniors, other graduates and their families and friends,” Folt said. “We plan to have an in-person, on-campus celebration that will take place once travel and large group events become safe and permitted.”

Cheryl Taplin was excited about being able to walk across the stage in front of friends and family to receive her masters in communications management from USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, but has made peace with having to graduate virtually without the usual fanfare.

“It took me four years to complete the courses because I have a full-time job,” said Taplin, who travels with USC’s football team as the executive assistant to the head coach and is also the assistant director of operations at USC.

“I’m 47. I wanted to do this for me,” she added. “When I heard the graduation would be postponed or canceled, I broke down because I had family and friends coming to town. I’m more upset that my sister and everyone else who helped me won’t be able to see me graduate. I’m just disappointed.”

Jordan Hunter is a 21-year-old senior at USC majoring in journalism. He is sad about not being able to finish his senior project.

“My senior project was going to be a podcast. I am the sports anchor for the school’s newscast,” Hunter said. “Now, we can’t be in the studio. We’re recording ourselves and sending it in.

“On Zoom, it’s harder to stay focused. It’s not easy to learn online, but this whole thing hasn’t stopped me from dreaming. It puts things in perspective more.

“The job market is a question mark,” he added. “No one has the answers. It’s uncertain whether we will have jobs in the fall. I’m looking on the bright side. Three and two-thirds of my college career were done to the fullest. That being said, it’s still not going to be the same.”

Isabelle Garvanne is a 21-year-old Los Angeles native who is a senior studying sociology at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. She doesn’t have a job waiting for her when she graduates, but she is a finalist for a fellowship. She is concerned about the job market for 2020 graduates.

“I’m a little worried,” she said. “I’ve been looking for jobs. All recruitment is on hold, the same thing with internships. At present, my future is up in the air. This virus adds to my worry. I’m more than a little anxious. 

“I really wanted this time to be a traditional graduation complete with throwing the hat up in the air, and seeing my parents and seeing my friends walk,” she added. “The formality is what I will miss. I voted against having a virtual commencement. I’d rather not have it if I can’t be with my class.”