A graduation like no other

Mary O’Harte talks to the class of 2020 on finally celebrating their long-awaited graduation

Recently something strange happened on campus. The Front Square, which had been a virtual wasteland for almost a year, started to fill up with students in caps and gowns. While many had chosen to be conferred in absentia, over the course of several days, 1,000 students from the class of 2020 were able to finally celebrate their graduation in a number of socially distanced ceremonies. 

I worked at the commencement ceremonies this year, taking photographs. The atmosphere was a little strange, as many of the graduating students had not been on campus since March 2020. Carefully planned outfits clashed with multicoloured masks. Because of the limits on numbers, and the virtual option, several students graduated without any of their friends or classmates present. Still, several students commented on how lovely it was to be back. Carol McGill, an English graduate, was one such student, commenting that “finishing final year in lockdown was so jarring. None of us knew at that point how long the lockdown would be, so I didn’t even really realise my last day on campus was my last.”

The sentiment was echoed by others, who mentioned their sadness over not getting to have one last drink at the Pav, say goodbye to lecturers, or just enjoy one last stroll around the campus that’s been a part of their lives for the last few years. It’s easy to roll your eyes at the ceremony, to see it as nothing more than a photo-op, that it is more symbolic than anything, but graduation is also an important emotional milestone. Graduating from university is one of the final moments of closure you get before entering the “real world”, so to speak. It represents one chapter of your life ending, and another chapter beginning. A number of graduates online talked about how anticlimactic it felt to essentially finish their degree by pressing a button on their screens. I asked Carol if she was happy that she had held out for the in-person ceremony, and she had no doubts about it. “Getting to actually celebrate college ending, gave me closure I didn’t know I needed and I’m so grateful.”

Catharsis, a sense of relief or closure – these may seem like lofty, abstract things to strive for – but if the last year has taught us anything it’s that these small moments matter.

Catharsis, a sense of relief or closure – these may seem like lofty, abstract things to strive for – but if the last year has taught us anything it’s that these small moments matter. Their importance should not be overlooked just because bigger things are happening. While people have talked about missing foreign holidays and music festivals, as lockdown went on we became more wistful for simple moments that would often be taken for granted, like enjoying a cup of coffee indoors, or smelling a scented candle in a shop. 

Over the last number of years, graduates have been entering an increasingly tumultuous world. The rise of the gig economy, the housing crisis, and climate change have all contributed to feelings of dread and uncertainty. This has worsened with the Covid-19 pandemic, which the class of 2020 graduated into. For underclassmen, the pandemic has had devastating effects, but at the same time we have had the safety net of college. The 2020 graduates were left in limbo, forced to move back in with their parents as their plans for the future were derailed.

However, this made some students like Conor Kelly, appreciate the graduation event all the more. “The fact we graduated a year on from college meant we had already faced the existential dread that comes with stepping into the big bad world so we could really just enjoy the day.”

I asked him if he was glad that he waited for the in-person ceremony, rather than getting it over with earlier. “I am. I know one or two who didn’t, which I didn’t quite understand because graduation is meant to be a celebration and not a trip to the dentist. You’re meant to enjoy it and that I did.” After the past year, I got to have a day where I could celebrate with the people who got me into college and then in the evening celebrate with those I met throughout my four years who I love, and call my best friends – is there more I could ask for?”