Graduation, interrupted: A senior reflects on college’s abrupt end

Josh Eibelman

When I first read about the novel coronavirus in early January, it barely registered. As a graduating senior enjoying my final months at school in the small city of Ithaca, New York, I never imagined that a virus in China could affect me. But two months later, the pandemic brought my time at college to an abrupt end.

The crisis seemed to draw closer early this month when an outbreak erupted in Westchester County, New York, home to many fellow Cornell University students. Online classes were just a rumor among us at the time, as other colleges made the move. Then on March 10, Cornell announced a gradual transition to remote learning. Three days later came the shock that classes would be suspended immediately for three weeks, and students were asked to go home as soon as possible. I called my parents and we agreed they would pick up me and my four years of accumulated goods that Sunday.

Then it hit me: No graduation ceremony this spring. I had likely seen my friends, classmates, and professors all together for the last time. An important and formative stage in my life had come to a sudden halt.

[Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.]

Most students grieved, albeit in different ways. Some heeded calls to socially distance almost immediately. But many, especially certain seniors, partied as hard as ever. Perhaps they refused to accept this new reality. Perhaps they grasped it faster than most and decided to put up one last fight against it.

As with many organizations and governments, the varying pace and degree of high-level decisions is resulting in lots of uncertainty for everyone else. Selma Helal, a senior from Alexandria, Egypt, majoring in psychology, depends on her job as a laboratory research assistant to pay her living expenses and remain in Ithaca. The university suspended nonessential research activity last week. 

“It has been especially confusing since it has been emphasized that it is not safe to travel at this time,” says Ms. Helal. “Not only am I afraid to further spread the virus to my family and others, but I am also running the risk of not knowing when or if I’ll be able to return to the U.S.” Thankfully, she says, Cornell has begun working with her so that she can keep her job.   

While some students felt safer remaining in Ithaca, others wanted to return home. Adam Shapiro, a senior from Canada in Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration, worried about a lockdown in Ithaca or the closing of the U.S.-Canada border (nonessential travel was indeed banned on both sides last Wednesday). “While I undoubtedly wish I could have spent the next two months in Ithaca as a senior, I am thankful to be in good health and comfort back in Montreal,” he says in a text message. 

Students are able to see the bright side. Elise Viz, a senior mechanical engineering major from a suburb outside Chicago says that “other than being sad, confused, and a bit disappointed, I also found myself strangely excited. I was happy to go home to my family because I am very close with them and living so far away from them at Cornell really weighed on me at times.” 

On my last Saturday in Ithaca, a friend and I toured Cornell’s beautiful campus for what’s likely to be the last time in a while. We went inside the gorgeous Sage Chapel, with its Tiffany stained-glass windows. We crossed the main quad and took some final photos. I said goodbye to the view of Ithaca from Libe Slope. At an outdoor a capella concert, my friend and I agreed to meet when the pandemic is over.

Now, more than a week after much of the student body has dispersed around the world, students are bound by their shared struggles.  

Aidan Mahoney, a sophomore studying atmospheric science, is staying in Ithaca because his hometown in Westchester County is experiencing a major coronavirus outbreak. “I sing with the Cornell Glee Club, which is now silent for the first time since World War II,” he explains. The club’s only academic year hiatus was 1943-45. “Our rehearsals and concerts were platforms to share music with the Cornell and Ithaca communities, but most importantly each other,” he says.  

Back home, I am happy to be able to social distance with family. But before online classes begin, I’m thinking about the senior year memories I will never get to make. About my grandparents, who are particularly vulnerable now. About the tanking economy and my future. 

I learned recently that the class of 2020 would, indeed, have a college graduation in Ithaca. No one knows whether those celebrations might have to be postponed for months, or years. It is hard not to be discouraged. 

But then I reflect on the inspiring stories of health care workers putting themselves in harm’s way on the front lines of this pandemic, dealing with medical supply shortages and unimaginable pressure. And I realize that there are heroes instilling in all of us a lesson in courage and kindness we would otherwise not get to learn in the lecture hall.

Josh Eibelman is a senior at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. You can follow him on Twitter at @JoshEibelman.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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