As graduations are postponed across the country, Anna Carvanova reflects on her own experience completing her final year at Cardiff University during a nationwide lockdown.
Two years ago, in the late summer of 2019, I attended my partner’s graduation. There were several things that I realised. Firstly, after a lifetime of walking in two-inch heels, you cannot train yourself to walk in five inch-heels in one afternoon. It simply won’t work. You will be a head taller than everybody else. You will look like a baby gazelle leaving its mother’s side for the first time. But more importantly, I realised that I was looking forward to my own graduation. Perhaps I’m too sentimental. After all, I did tear up a little during the degree ceremony, despite the fact that the event had nothing to do with me, whilst my partner, the one actually finishing her degree, did not. Yet a graduation ceremony brings a satisfying finality to three years of hard work. At some point during the proceedings; her father turned to me and grinned “we’ll be doing this all over again in two years’ time!”
Of course, this was before the coronavirus pandemic began, before social distancing, food shortages, university closures and national lockdowns. Before, in short, everything went a bit pear-shaped.
“Remember to make the most out of university, because those three years will fly by!”. These words may be very familiar to anyone who has been to university, as they are often said to everyone in their first week. This is even more true when those three years are, due to unprecedented circumstances, reduced to one and a half. No bright-eyed fresher, who began their university journey only a few Septembers ago, could have imagined that their experience would be cut short by a global pandemic. Yet, here we are. The pandemic has had a huge impact on the mental health of university students, from first-years who have found themselves facing lockdown in unfamiliar, cramped and mouldy university halls- which are famously unpleasant places to be at the best of times- to third-years, like myself, who are facing the strange feeling of wrapping up our time at university, having only been properly present for half of it. Then there are those who finished university last year, who went home on the 23rd of March without realising that they would never come back. It’s strange to complete final dissertations without those overnight camp-outs in the university library, to sit final exams without being able to give your friends pep talks and last minute panics beforehand, to receive your last few grades and be unable to celebrate. These are all part-and-parcel of the university experience, and it is surreal to be completing this milestone without them.
Perhaps the strangeness of finishing a degree knee-deep in quarantine is best illustrated by the lack of a graduation ceremony. As nice as it is to dress to the nines and eat fancy canapés, whilst trying not to fall head over heels in heels that were bought when you were feeling much more optimistic about your ability to strut across a stage in front of all of your peers, graduating is not really about the event itself. It’s more about what the graduation represents; a final, satisfying end to three years of hard work, a public recognition of how far you have come, and a chance to say goodbye to the friends and mentors who helped you get there. Instead, the pandemic has meant that university life has been unceremoniously cut short. Rather than three years of studying, the combination of quarantine and travel restrictions has meant that many students have only been actively present for about two. Yet despite this, the term is almost over. It’s an odd sensation, like suddenly reaching the finish line of a race that you have only just started.
This is a feeling shared by those who finished their courses last year, back when the Covid situation was only just beginning. At the beginning of the year, those students could not have imagined that they would be finishing it in a national lockdown, unable to say goodbye to friends or really celebrate the completion of their degrees. Instead of a graduation ceremony, this milestone would be taking place over zoom. Digital graduations are very different from the real thing, and many students that I know chose not to go, as saying goodbye across a screen seemed a little too strange and a little too sad. When imagining the relief of gaining a degree and the bittersweet feeling of finishing three years of university, a celebration held over a grainy webcam connection rarely springs to mind. It doesn’t seem like the right way to celebrate, especially now that we’re suffering from Zoom fatigue, sick of socialising through a screen after countless online lectures, meetings, and oh so many online trivia nights (I will never look at a pub quiz the same way again). An online graduation is simply not the same, there is no sparkling wine or buffet, no chance to bring along family, no chance to speak to friends. Then, of course, there are the practical issues. For instance, never in a real graduation would you be escorted out of the venue due to a lack of internet connection. Many people made the best out of a bad situation, dressing up in older sibling’s graduation caps, substituting robes for dressing gowns, and staging celebrations in their own back gardens. This was not quite what anyone imagined their last year at university would look like.
For many students like myself, completing our final year now, the possibility of a graduation ceremony has been postponed, and may not happen at all. If it does happen, graduation will also be the first time that I see many of my peers since lockdown began, making the ceremony both a reunion and a last goodbye, at the same time. The uncertainty of how these three years of university will end is an ambiguous and unsatisfying mood to complete my final studies in. We do not yet know whether what we have worked for comes to a satisfying conclusion or whether we will hand in one last piece of coursework, receive our degree in the post, and that will be that. This lack of certainty of how university will end, on top of the social isolation caused by lockdown, has caused a strain on student’s mental health. After all, completing final exams and finishing up university can be stressful enough, without the added worry of not knowing if you will get to say goodbye.
As the summer comes around, and restrictions begin to ease, students across the country have been reunited with friends. If there is anything that can be learnt from this, perhaps it is to appreciate the friendships that have already been formed and to make every remaining moment of university count. I know that I will.
Anna Carvanova is a final-year student undertaking an internship at the Wales Arts Review.