Four years ago, you may have been a college freshman sauntering on to the Wake Forest University campus for your first day. Or you may have taken a similar freshman stroll on one of the estimated 4,000 colleges and universities in America. This is a special shout out to the class of 2020.
You noticed a lawn located in a central meeting area of the campus. If you successfully completed the truckload of work, classes, and assignments, you were told that’s where your graduation would be on a gorgeous May day four years later. You pictured yourself there feeling proud. You were so hopeful yet fearful and full of doubt.
But questions swirled around in your brain: Could you stay tough and diligent enough to make it to that day? Would the schoolwork be too overwhelming? Would you have the discipline to sit down by yourself in some obscure desk location on a high-up floor on the campus library to study for countless hours, day after day, semester after semester, year after year after year after year?
Would you have the tenacity to wrestle with concepts, go over them time and time again to make sure you were ready for the tests? How would you pass all the courses every semester, again and again, for four straight years? The workload would be weighty. Often it would feel like just too much mental strain requiring more physical stamina that you had.
You didn’t know. But you knew you wanted to be on that lawn in your cap and gown with your family watching you achieve something you weren’t sure you could, graduate from college, earn a college diploma. The anticipation of the beautiful day kept you focused and fueled you all the way through all of college’s obstacles and trials.
You now know that vision you thought about so often, the image that kept driving you to study for tests, pass courses, and get to the finish line, will not crystallize into the experience you had hoped for.
There will not be a beautiful day outside on the lawn with your friends, taking in the sunshine, and feeling so self-satisfied. There will be no cap. There will be no gown. No side-by-side pictures with friends. No shot of you shaking hands with the university president. No punch and cookies at a university social afterward. No sunshine on your face and a slight cool breeze on your skin.
You won’t be graduating outside on that lawn, not this May. Maybe another time down the road, but not now.
Count yourself among the uncommonly unfortunate two million students in the United States expected to earn an undergraduate bachelor’s degree this year who won’t have a traditional ceremony.
The coronavirus pandemic struck at exactly the wrong time for your graduating class. All of you have been victimized by bad timing. It’s sad. It’s appropriate to admit that to yourselves. Cry if you feel the need to. Everybody will understand. No shame in that whatsoever.
My son was scheduled to receive his undergraduate this May on a gorgeous college lawn, but he won’t be able to realize that dream either. Millions of parents won’t witness that unforgettable life moment on those beautiful lawns. It’s a tough loss for them, too. But nothing compared with your loss, you the students.
When I started college at Wake Forest University, I had serious concerns about whether I could graduate ever, let alone on time. Each day I would walk on the central quadrangle where I knew the graduation would be held. It tantalized me to hope that maybe I would put on my own cap and gown and graduate. It felt like a long shot, to be honest.
To this day there are few achievements in my life and only a few that mean more to me, than attending my college graduation wearing that cap and gown outside as my family watched. On time, I qualified to get that diploma.
I experienced that day in the sun wearing the cap and gown. It’s one day, for a few hours, and it’s poignant and a lifetime memory and moment of triumph.
My heart aches for all of you college seniors who won’t get to experience what I and hundreds of millions of other undergraduate college students did for so many consecutive decades. No pandemics washed away our outdoor graduations in caps and gowns.
Only yours. You are the unlucky ones.
Every one of you has been shortchanged. But know this. You did what you had to do deserve to graduate. It was a struggle to get there.
Anyone who has graduated from college knows it’s a tough road. There are doubts. There are bad test grades. There are difficult and annoying classes that out-stretch our intellectual ability.
Professors ask questions on exams we did not anticipate nor prepare for, and that really makes you feel uneasy and frustrated. Some classes bother us for entire semesters – they’re not our bag. But we have to thrash around and get through them – or we don’t graduate. Tumult was involved.
But you all did it. You suffered yet overcame the strain. You have shown you can execute a formula for successful living. Americans everywhere salute you.
We needed you to work hard and develop your minds. We need you to improve the world as you now start your journeys to lead us all. You did your part.
Life has few certainties. This is one: Life doesn’t work on the same timetable we want it to. Unexpected events, such as pandemics, happen. Expect this. It’s guaranteed. Don’t try to wish this truth away because it won’t work and will frustrate you.
You may think you’re doing fine in your career and one day your boss tells you you aren’t doing a good enough job. He tells you your services are no longer needed.
You may want to marry someone who doesn’t want to marry you. You want to have a child but may have to wait a few years or never be able to be a father or mother.
Painful stuff happens. It hurts.
And every time – just like this month when you were supposed to have a glorious graduation outside – you will have a choice of how to react. You can get angry. You can feel cheated. You can feel frustrated. You can quit. You can decide not to attend the online graduation ceremony. You can ask yourself “why did this happen to me?”
You will have so many other situations in your future when you will ask these same questions. How you handle these questions will define your characters and who you really are.
Think of it this way. Would you rather be fighting for your life hooked up to a ventilator, as thousands of Americans have been in the past few months, or instead not be able to go to your graduation in a cap and gown outside but be able to breathe easily on your own?
The answer is obvious. The key lies in perspective. Gratitude will get you through.
It’s more than melancholic that this graduation day has been stolen from you. No one is happy about it. You have every right to feel shortchanged.
But contemplate this: On your graduation day, you will be able to wake up, eat breakfast, and talk to your family and friends. They will congratulate you, maybe on a Zoom call. You will get gifts. Everyone who loves you will continue to love you.
Maybe your school will have a virtual graduation. Make the most of that. Enjoy it for what it is. Make the most of your situation. Greater words to live by may not exist.
Your attitude will make all the difference on your graduation days, as it will in every situation you encounter the rest of your lives.
America salutes you, class of 2020. You will always be extra special in our minds and hearts. You’ll always be remembered as the tough people who handled a rotten situation with class, dignity, and aplomb.
Persist onward, ever higher, as you did as undergraduate students.
Through every challenge plow ahead.
Glorious gang of graduates, galvanize us all with your obvious grit.
About the Author:
Charles Hartley is the president of Carolina Content & Media Relations Corporation based in Davidson, North Carolina. The company improves the quality of writing, content marketing, and media relations for high-tech businesses. He writes a tech humor blog titled “Tech Tales From the Hart” that can be accessed here: www.carolina-content.com. He earned his undergraduate degree from Wake Forest University. He also earned master’s degrees from The American University and Rutgers University. He can be reached at [email protected].
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