It’s OK to cancel graduation ceremonies

Lance Nelson, Editor-in-Chief

From UCLA to Columbia University, students across the country face the unfortunate reality of canceled graduation ceremonies due to the unprecedented coronavirus pandemic. While I can attempt to understand how disappointing it may feel not having the opportunity to accept your diploma in front of friends, family, and mentors, I’d like to offer the following commentary on why that moment shouldn’t define your time in college.

I myself will be graduating from a San Diego community college at the age of 32 this coming May. Being that this will be my first completion of an education program since I graduated high school in 2006, I can assure you that I’ve not looked forward to a single day in my entire life more than graduation. My wall calendar features the phrase “Graduation Day!” scribbled across May 30 with two layers of highlighter, separating it from less-exciting events occurring that month.

This passion for learning is new to me. My journey to college has been anything but traditional. To be honest, I spent my twenties believing higher education was nothing more than a business model, scraping the pockets of naïve young adults. My experience of being gay and bullied in high school made me terrified of stepping foot on another campus and played a large role in my disillusionment. Now, as I approach the tail end of my Associate of Arts degree, I can humbly admit that I was wrong about higher education and the unique experience it provides.

My time at San Diego Mesa College has transformed my life. The classroom discussions and office hours meetings with professors have been foundational blocks in salvaging my once-crumbled confidence. Choosing to present on issues facing the LGBTQ community helped heal my memories of being harassed in my high school locker room. And the friendships I’ve made here have eased my social anxiety. All of these moments that challenged me weren’t leading to graduation, they were leading to growth.

That said, when my district decided to close campuses and move instruction online with the objective of slowing the coronavirus, I still couldn’t help but hope the commencement ceremony would be somehow spared. Of course I want that moment to let my parents know I’ve overcome my earlier years and that I’ll be OK. And I’m not alone in dreaming of that metamorphic day.

Over the last week, students from coast to coast have voiced their broken dreams of walking. As I found myself scrolling through tweets under the trending #postponegrad, I witnessed a sincere wave of disappointment. Then I came across a video featuring students from Barnard College and Columbia University putting on their own “self-graduation ceremony” in New York’s Central Park. Lined up, with no more than a few dozen attendees in sight, each graduate applauded each other as their name was called. This wasn’t about recognition or big crowds; it was about supporting fellow classmates for completing something meaningful, something we unknowingly do every week.

Throughout my time at Mesa, I’ve heard more aspirational stories than I can recall. From my 40-something-year-old interpersonal communication classmate who travels two hours every day from Mexico to my 19-year-old speechmaking classmate who so bravely shared her experience of severe depression and struggles with public speaking, we all enrolled to become better versions of ourselves. And we are succeeding together, because we put in the work. So, while it may seem that this is all for that highly anticipated moment on stage, it’s about so much more. 

Graduation is a special time that has motivated so many of us to keep going. If you do have the opportunity to walk that stage, hands trembling as your name is finally called, don’t just look out at the sea of robes and decorated caps. Look further, beyond the last row. Beyond the conquered obstacles and late-night studying, you’ll see what truly mattered. Those are the experiences that have lifted you to new heights and perspectives. And if your graduation happens to be canceled, know that this view is not suddenly obstructed. It’s been there all along and no graduation ceremony will ever measure up to that feeling. Even in the face of a pandemic, you did it.