COVID pandemic derails graduations for NC’s college grads, but not their dreams - North Carolina Health News
By Aaliyah Bowden
The month of May is when graduates look forward to walking across the stage, throwing graduation parties, and taking pictures in their cap and gown with family members. However, because of the disruption caused by the novel coronavirus, spring graduations for colleges across the state are postponed.
We spoke to six college seniors from institutions across the state who recounted how the pandemic interrupted their senior year and derailed their celebrations, making it more difficult for them to celebrate their accomplishments.
Even though the graduates are delayed from walking across those momentous stages this month, they remain Spring 2020 graduates. Many N.C. college graduating seniors will receive their diplomas by mail from their colleges or universities, but it’s just not the same as walking away, sheepskin in hand.
These students recount the moments they’ll miss and the ways they plan to celebrate despite the pandemic.
The first-generation student
Quishauna McDougle, 22, is a first-generation college student at North Carolina Central University who had her heart set on walking across the stage this weekend. She majored in mass communication, with a concentration in broadcast.
“For me (graduating) was greater than me, especially with me being a first-generation college student,” she said. “This was something that I wanted my nieces and nephews or cousins coming after me to be able to see and watch.”
This was an important moment for McDougle because she hasn’t seen anyone in her family achieve this high accomplishment.
But her dream was altered after Gov. Roy Cooper’s stay-at-home order went into effect in late March and her school sent out a student-wide email postponing 2020 Spring Commencement.
NCCU spring graduating students were given the option to participate in commencements in either December or Spring of 2021.
To McDougle, this was a “personal experience” that she looked forward to and she felt it would not hold the same measure of accomplishment months from now.
“I graduated in the spring, not the fall,” McDougle said. “For me to try and go back and unpack it — this one moment, I just think it’s a little too late at this point.”
McDougle shares an apartment off campus with her best friend and has two jobs that are keeping her financially secure. She works as a marketing specialist at Raleigh-Durham International Airport and a speaking consultant in the Writing and Speaking Studio at NCCU. Both jobs have been affected by the pandemic, but both jobs decided to compensate McDougle and their other workers during the pandemic.
McDougle said her ideal career is in entertainment, but for now, she’ll need to be more innovative while keeping her eye on where she wants to go.
“I am pursuing a field where I have to create opportunities for myself,” McDougle said. “With that being said, only God knows what’s truly bound to happen and what (my) opportunities will look like.”
The future essential worker
N.C. State University psychology graduate Kyria Mabiala has struggled to find jobs related to her field because she only has a bachelor’s degree. Most of the openings for essential workers require more experience.
“I am studying to become a mental health counselor, so that is my priority,” she said. “I am willing to help patients now more than ever because people are not only suffering with their physical health but their mental health as well.”
N.C. State University postponed its commencement until August or December.
She added that her family was and is still heartbroken about not being able to see her walk in May and are unsure about how to celebrate because of social distancing.
Mabiala will begin graduate school in the fall at East Carolina University to pursue a master’s degree in clinical psychology on her journey to becoming a clinical psychologist.
The college athlete
Taylor Moncrief was looking forward to presenting her research on how African American hair was perceived in the workplace at a regional psychological association meeting.
Like most major events, the April conference was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The University of Mount Olive psychology graduate said she was sad to miss that opportunity.
Moncrief also ran track at UMO and said the remainder of her outdoor season was canceled. She had competed in jumps, sprints and hurdle events.
“I completed my indoor track season, and we came back for spring break and there was one track meet for outdoor,” Moncrief said. “In the track meet before spring break my coach was like, ‘Hey we’re about to go on spring break—take a break don’t worry about this one.’
“Both of my teammates competed in that one [meet] and then spring break happened. That’s when COVID-19 pretty much made an abrupt change to a lot of our lives.”
UMO’s pushed back its commencement ceremony to August 29.
Moncrief is also headed to ECU in the fall to study industrial organizational psychology. But her track and field competing days aren’t over yet. Moncrief said she plans to run track while in graduate school.
The international student
Several students said COVID-19 was declared a pandemic while they were on spring break and they were asked to retrieve their belongings and return home. But not all college students could get home. Some were from another country on lockdown and had to abide by travel restrictions in their home countries and difficulties getting home.
Anna Jestin, an international student at Duke University, is one of those. She could not travel back home to Paris, France, which has tight restrictions on movement around the country. Luckily for Jestin, Duke, along with other universities, allowed international students to remain on campus during the pandemic. Jestin said that she and other students who still live on campus have limited access to facilities, and there are a couple of dining options still open with shorter hours and dine-out options.
“It feels weird. It’s very quiet. Almost nobody is outside apart from students going to get food, or out for their daily exercise,” Jestin said.
Duke has also postponed its commencement to an undetermined date. The ceremony will be celebrated through an “interactive digital experience” allowing graduates, their families, alumni and friends to engage directly with the people at Duke, according to a statement by Duke University President Vincent Price.
Jestin’s parents are safe in France but said they are really disappointed about a virtual ceremony.
“They had planned to come to Duke from overseas to celebrate after four years of me being abroad and doing my undergrad in the U.S.,” Jestin said. “They’re just wondering when the actual ceremony will be, but at the same time, they’re happy that they are doing something to celebrate seniors.”
Jestin added that she found a job as a strategy consultant at Deloitte’s Strategy & Operations Consulting and that’s not been affected by the pandemic. After travel restrictions are lifted, she plans to move back to France.
The single mom
UNC Wilmington student Palama Johnson, 34, is a theatre and technology production graduate and a mother of two sons. She was unable to finish theater productions on campus.
“It was heartbreaking,” she said. “I’m a single mother of two and was working two jobs, working every single production at school; so I was really looking forward to it.”
She was scheduled to graduate this week but graduation was postponed to August 7 or 8 based on students’ majors. Within two weeks after the pandemic was declared, she got a job as a home-based customer service representative for Amazon.
“A lot of things have been delayed because of (COVID-19) at Amazon. I just wish people were a little bit more thoughtful on how they speak to a person who is just trying to make a living,” she said. “It’s been rough.”
Johnson is also a manager for the entertainment company Live Nation. A couple of months before the pandemic, she received one job offer in Raleigh and another offer in Wilmington. After restrictions are lifted, she hopes to pursue one of those jobs.