On commencement, COVID-19 and my college career

A first-generation student reflects on finishing college during the COVID-19 pandemic.


The other day, as I lie in bed, I stared at an email from the College of Education and Human Development, the bright, artificial glare of my phone screen providing one of the few sources of light in my dim, cold room, save for the faded, flickering image of “Schitt’s Creek” on TV. 

I mustered enough strength to read the subject line, the words “Commencement Updates” appearing in fuzzy, white letters, and I smiled for the first time since my symptoms kicked in. 

In a few weeks, I’d be student teaching — come May 2022, I’ll be graduating. It’s an accomplishment I’d once thought was always out of reach for me, the first in his family to go to college. To walk across that stage and celebrate every ounce of hard work I’d invested in this degree — all the hours of relentless studying and late-night shifts at work — that was just a dream that hadn’t felt real until this moment. 

“I’m going to be a college graduate,” I told myself, then turned off my phone to save my sore eyes as I continue laying in bed, my body too exhausted from days of fighting a virus. I’d just tested positive for COVID-19 a few days before, and as I write this essay, my symptoms are on the decline and I’m alone in my apartment, stuck in isolation, trying to finish assignments I pushed off at the beginning of my quarantine. 

Getting COVID in my final months of college forced me to reflect on how a virus that didn’t exist when I applied to Temple University has irreversibly altered my academic career, and how knowing that fact makes me even prouder to graduate.

I remember my insistence that I couldn’t handle college back in high school: maybe I wasn’t intelligent or driven or rich enough, thoughts that echoed in my head after my first semester of college as I stared at my first set of straight A’s. 

I remember my shaky, trepidatious foot stepping into the Honors Lounge during my first semester to ask how I could join the program, sure I couldn’t make it in — that moment rests in my memory as I conduct research for my Honors Thesis Project today. If there’s one thing I can thank Temple for, it’s making me confident in my academic abilities and pushing me to explore opportunities that led me to where I am now.

That drive to meet my academic potential came to fruition during my sophomore year, particularly my Spring 2020 semester, when I took courses in literary movements and genres that I was deeply interested in, and helped people with their writing as an editor at The Temple News.

Then, the pandemic happened.

Persevering through a pandemic while completing your degree is especially significant as a first-generation student because you don’t have anyone to explain how financial aid or graduation requirements work. 

Navigating four years of college with only your intuition to guide you is an already taxing responsibility on top of completing coursework and holding down whatever job comes your way: but to add the mental, emotional and – with my recent infection – physical tolls of an all-consuming pandemic on top of it? I’d bet high-school-me is surprised I haven’t dropped out yet.

The fact that I haven’t — and that I’ve continued to explore new academic and extracurricular responsibilities, from peer teaching an undergraduate English class to editing this very newspaper last year — makes me prouder than I’ve ever been before.

Learning to teach during a pandemic has been my greatest challenge during the past year and a half. I’d sit alone in Charles Library having never seen my classmates or professor before while reading about how learning is a social process best achieved by interacting with others. How painfully ironic those words are today as I surf through a stack of library books and write my final papers in isolation from the rest of the world.

In a few days, I’ll be out of quarantine, but the pressures of the pandemic won’t disappear: they’ll still be present each day of my student teaching. They’re a part of my academic journey, something that’s touched every paper, project and lesson plan I’ve written since March 2020.

When I walk across that commencement stage in a few short months, I won’t wonder what these four years would’ve looked like without the pandemic’s imprint on them. It’s my reality, and one I’m proud of living through.

But as I lay in bed today, my laptop spread across my legs as I frantically catch up on missed homework, there’s something extra special about the confetti cluttering the Canvas site when I submit a final paper. It’s a small reminder of my accomplishments that could’ve been derailed by a pandemic that’s touched every sector of my life. Every time I see that confetti, I smile a bit.

When I walk across that stage in May, you can bet I’ll be smiling even more, even if it’s under a mask.

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