Last May, 2020 college graduates were preparing for their commencements at home with a Zoom link or some form of virtual celebration due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For University of Georgia undergraduates, that meant no turning the tassels on Dooley Field and no celebratory fireworks above Sanford Stadium. Instead, a virtual commencement ceremony was hosted on May 8.
Caroline Kraczon, a 2020 UGA alum currently attending Georgetown University Law Center, said she remembers celebrating at home with her parents and dog. “My parents tried to make it as nice of a day as they could, so that was really nice,” Kraczon said. “It definitely was kind of anticlimactic to log in because I remember when I was logging on to the actual virtual graduation ceremony itself, it wasn’t working at first. It didn’t feel very ceremonial.”
This year, things look a little different for the class of 2021 undergraduates. In light of changing public health guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Georgia Department of Public Health, UGA announced on May 1 that graduates would get tickets to sit on the field if they chose, and there would be no limit on the number of guests in the stands.
UGA is still spreading out commencement over three days this year to promote social distancing. Thursday, May 13 is the Terry College of Business and Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication ceremony. Friday, May 14, is the College of Environment and Design, College of Pharmacy, Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and School of Social Work. Saturday, May 15, is the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, College of Engineering, College of Family and Consumer Sciences, College of Public Health, Mary Frances Early College of Education, Odum School of Ecology, School of Public and International Affairs and Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources. All three ceremonies start at 7:30 p.m. at Sanford Stadium.
Although Nicholas Yanek, a third-year biology major who’s graduating early, won’t get to attend graduation because of the SEC Track and Field Outdoor Championships, he’s excited about the new developments. “I am excited that everyone else gets to have the people that they want get to be there and get to celebrate with them and really soak in the moment, especially since this last year has been definitely challenging,” Yanek said.
Those challenges have varied for the seniors and upcoming graduates. Going into their senior year, the class of 2021 was faced with virtual classes and, for most, their last year at the university essentially happening from home.
“Safety comes first, so I was good with going home, but I was definitely sad because I am involved on campus,” Yanek said. “With our track season, that was definitely a change of plans, because I was really excited for that track season.”
2020 graduates faced an uncertain job market and economy devastated by the pandemic. For Krazcon, it meant choosing a law school without getting the chance to do in-person tours.
“It made me feel worried about, was I missing something at other schools?” Krazcon said. “It introduced some doubt, and I was also worried about, is this even the right time to go to law school?”
Luckily, Krazcon had been able to visit Georgetown Law in January before COVID-19 hit the U.S. and said, upon reflection, she knew she’d made the right decision. “I’m happy where I ended up,” Krazcon said. “I don’t think that I would have changed the decision, but during that time I definitely did feel worried about not getting all the information I needed.”
Ahdaysia Williamson-McAllister, a 2020 UGA alum, said the pandemic pushed back her job hunt. “I was in the process of getting certified as a medical assistant, and so when COVID hit, the school closed down, and it put that whole thing on pause,” Williamson-McAllister said. “So it took me a lot longer than expected to finally get certified, and I ended up not getting certified until the very very end of the summer.”
However, Williamson-McAllister, who took a gap year, has used that time to get hands-on experience in the medical field by working as a dermatology assistant. She said the time she’s had to work through her physicians’ assistant program application has decreased her stress.
Despite the setbacks and adjustments, the seniors and graduates said the pandemic gave them a chance to slow down and reflect on what was important to them. Claudia Wooten, a fourth-year political sciences and international affairs major, said she realized how important it is to keep her energy peaceful, especially with her plans to go to UGA’s graduate school to earn her master’s degree in college education.
“Every day is so valuable,” Wooten said. “So I think something I learned from this year, in particular, was holding on to those friendships, putting more time and energy into those that I do love and I do care about being around.”
With vaccine rollout underway and UGA planning to return to normal operations this fall, the world seems to be looking to move forward, much like its seniors and graduates after a year filled with anxiety and disappointment. Yanek said graduating after this year means so much more because of that.
“We made it through one of the most uncertain and probably one of the highest anxiety years we could have in one piece, and successfully, so I think it shows how much we persevered and how dedicated we were to finishing strong,” Yanek said.
Like what you just read? Support Flagpole by making a donation today. Every dollar you give helps fund our ongoing mission to provide Athens with quality, independent journalism.