D. None of the Above: Students in the pivot-empty-stadium-online generation prepare to graduate
By Daniel Dunaief
The clock didn’t care about COVID-19.
Time marched forward at the same pace that it always has, and yet, the pandemic, which altered so much about our experiences, seemed to alter the fourth dimension.
Initially stuck in homes, we developed new routines, worked at kitchen tables or desks and spent considerably more time with family members and our pets throughout the day than anticipated.
For students, the pandemic altered opportunities and created challenges unseen for a century.
And yet, each year, as in this one for our daughter, the annual rite of passage of a graduation following an amalgam of typical and unique experiences awaits.
As these students march to “Pomp and Circumstance,” listen, or half-listen, to graduation speakers and glance at their supportive families who are thrilled to mark the milestone, celebrate their achievement and come together, what will be going through the minds of these new graduates?
Some may reflect on the typical academic stresses and achievements that helped them earn their diploma. They will consider the hours spent on lab experiments, the late-night workouts at the gym before a big game, and the endless rehearsals for shows and performances. They may bask in the attention of friends they made from around the country or around the corner.
They also might consider the parts they missed or the sudden change from their expected pathways.
Students, who were studying abroad, suddenly needed to return home as quickly as possible. They had to make sure they had their passports and visas, booked flights, and cleared out of rooms that might have just started to feel like home.
Others, like our daughter, raced back to their dorms from spring break, packed everything up and drove home.
As the weeks and months of uncertainty caused by a pandemic that gripped the country for more than two years progressed, some students recognized that they would not have some opportunities, like studying abroad. They might have filled out forms, learned important words in a different language, and chosen classes carefully that they couldn’t take.
Student-athletes, actors and artists, many of whom worked hard for months or longer together, were on their own as fields and stands stood empty.
These students may recognize, more than others, that plans may need to change in response to uncertainty caused by health concerns, storms or other issues.
Amid these disruptions and changes in routine, students and their families needed to pivot. They connected with friends online, entertained themselves at home, often on electronic devices, and tried to learn online.
Undoubtedly, they missed learning opportunities inside and outside the classroom. I heard from numerous students about lowered expectations and abridged syllabi, with American History classes designed to go to 2016 that stopped in 1945, at the end of World War II.
It will be up to students to fill those holes and to recognize the opportunities to become lifelong learners.
Indeed, as people search for a label for these graduates, perhaps the list will include the pivot generation, the empty stadium generation, and the virtual learning generation.
Historically, commencement speakers have exhorted graduates to embrace the opportunity to learn, to question the world around them and to seek out whatever they need.
After the pandemic adversely affected some of the students, perhaps some of them will learn and develop a stronger and more determined resilience, enabling them to keep their goals in sight even amid future uncertainties.
In the meantime, they and we can embrace the normalcy of a routine that allows them to watch the familiar clock as it slowly moves through the minutes of a commencement address.