Ethan Veenker

Soon-to-be college graduate Ethan Veenker

There’s a delicious irony in the recent announcement that the University of Tulsa has postponed its spring 2020 commencement ceremony. Actually, the irony lies in the cap and gown I have hanging in my closet, which I picked up at TU on March 10 before work. Later that evening, Interim President Janet Levit emailed the entire student body to inform us that TU was “implementing its social distancing policy, effective Wednesday, March 11.”

I haven’t been back on campus since that day, and the cap and gown now just hang limp in my closet, getting in the way, if anything.

We live in interesting times, and these conditions are indeed unprecedented. If you had told me this past December that the incurable respiratory disease sweeping through parts of China would postpone my graduation (not to mention wreck my country’s infrastructure), I probably would have laughed. I’d seen Ebola, swine flu, bird flu and more during their American tenures. Even SARS, though I was too young to care. No way would this disease have any greater international consequences.

So, yes, I’m one of the people who felt a little snuck-upon by COVID-19.

I’ll be the first to look at my situation and say, “It could be worse,” because it definitely could. I’m young; I don’t have asthma; I’m not immunocompromised — above all, I don’t have the virus, and with any luck I won’t before this is all over. I’m negatively impacted, to be sure, but I’m not struggling for life on a respirator in a lonely hospital ward. I still have food. I still have toilet paper. I have the luxury of magical 21st-century entertainment at my fingertips, and the fact is that I can wake up, live my day and go to bed without going outside and still retain some modicum of financial security (for now). I’m as scared as anyone — and as inconvenienced — but I’d be remiss not to point out the advantages I enjoy amid all this.

However, I’m in the unique position of standing on the precipice of true adulthood only to find a pair of locked doors. Thousands of other college students across the country are surely finding themselves in the same position. And with landlords calling and student debt rising, a greater desperation for those doors to open is bubbling. When’s a better time to join the workforce than the era of pandemic furloughs and non-essential business shutdowns? (On that note: Anyone hiring?)

Graduation, at least, would have been a nice cushion for the deep sting of immediate unemployment. I recall my high school graduation fondly. Loud and cramped and crowded — but no shortage of happy families taking pictures everywhere, and I guess that’s the resounding emotion at those events: happiness. Every graduate is grateful to hop on that stage, shake a few hands and receive an empty diploma case (the real one comes your way in the summer). Every family member is grateful to bear witness to that prolonged triumph. Even the younger children, I’d imagine, enjoy the incessant repetition of “Pomp and Circumstance.” It’s a bright occasion all around, even if parking is terrible.

TU’s administration was kind enough not to cancel our graduation outright, at least. That option was never on the table, it seems, as seniors were sent a survey via email March 24 asking their preference: a digital ceremony at the regular time and date or a postponement. The latter won out, though the final date is undetermined at the time of writing.

In an April 1 email to graduating seniors, Levit says, “The majority of respondents were in favor of rescheduling it for October, perhaps tied to TU Homecoming. There was also support for a summer ceremony, if the COVID-19 threat lifts by then. We will explore alternatives and will keep you informed,” following shortly with, “We may not be able to replicate the pomp and circumstance of a traditional TU commencement, but we will not let this milestone go unnoted.”

Which is nice. But it also kind of sucks.

Fellow pseudo-graduating senior Brennen Gray agrees. “I know it’s the right thing to do, but it still stings,” he says. “Sometimes you have to take one for the team, and I don’t believe any of us thinks the ceremony is the biggest sacrifice that will be made during these times. People will always find a way to celebrate.”

Another senior, Tori Gellman, shares the sentiment: “I’m disappointed for sure. I went through a lot — both personally and academically — during my four years at TU, and I would have loved that celebratory recognition of earning my degree.” She follows up on the decision’s prudence, saying, “I’d be far more upset if celebrations and events were continuing as planned.”

Gellman also points out, however, that a postponement — opposed to a virtual ceremony — will inherently exclude some students. “Given the current state of the world, virtual graduation is the most inclusive way to proceed with graduation. Postponing graduation until the fall excludes students who may be international or out-of-state students, or who may be off pursuing further education,” she says.

The decision has been made, however, and the only factor now that will seem to affect the date is when social distancing restrictions are lifted.

My feelings are ambivalent, but what stands out most is the fact that I’m missing an opportunity to rejoice for a bit — just for a bit.

Instead I’m cooped up in my apartment day in and day out, living off ramen and venturing outdoors only to take out the trash. There is no scenario in which social distancing and physical graduation could coexist, but man, that would be a way to take the edge off. All I can think for now is that I’ve been deprived of graduation and a dozen other simple pleasures by a microscopic, faceless, thoughtless virus from the other side of the planet. This brooding is interspersed with news reports of the rising death toll around the world, and I’m reminded what a luxury is to sit and think at all. 

Editorial Intern

Ethan Veenker is from Tulsa, Oklahoma. He will graduate from the University of Tulsa in May 2020 with two degrees in English and creative writing. When not writing or reading, he likes to drum. This annoys his neighbors.

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