With Two 2020 Graduates, Finding New Ways to Graduate Together

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With the coronavirus replacing many graduation ceremonies with virtual pomp and circumstance, many families are feeling the loss of a significant ritual. And for parents with children graduating from both high school and college this year, the letdown is supersized.

“Missing out on solemn and formal, joyous and exuberant anticipated events is as heartbreaking for seniors as it is for their parents. Families of double seniors face a heavy thwack of disappointments,” said Wendy Mogel, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles.

“There is definitely a gap right now that is difficult to fill,” said Simon J. Bronner, author of “Campus Traditions: Folklore From the Old-Time College to the Modern Mega-University.” “We can do online classes and virtual events, but the milestone of the commencement is difficult to simulate.”

Dr. Bronner, dean of the College of General Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, and professor of social sciences, said, “For students graduating from high school, graduation is the formal ceremony marking your independence, your separation from home.”

Dr. Bronner, who helped plan his school’s May 15 virtual ceremony, said “we need to be creative as educators and work with students to see what their emotional needs are, to find some kind of ritual closure, because they are not getting that now.”

But the cancellation of traditional commencements is giving families with multiple graduates opportunities to celebrate in new ways.

According to Dr. Bronner, there may be a silver lining in the creation of these new rituals. “Commencements have changed over the years, becoming larger, and they have lost some of the social intimacy they used to have, and less centered on the students,” he said. “Commencements are supposed to be student-centered.”

On May 2, Katie Kresnak watched from her house in Lafayette, Calif., as her 22-year-old daughter, Hannah, graduated from the University of Michigan in a ceremony she and her housemates — who had quarantined together — held in their front yard. With all 11 of the graduates’ families watching online, the women took turns walking across a makeshift stage, with each speaking about the others. The families also got a chance to talk about their graduates in a ceremony that Ms. Kresnak said felt intimate.

“It provided that closure you need psychologically to move from one chapter to the next,” Ms. Kresnak said. “It was so much more memorable and meaningful than if we had been there in person.”

If plans hold, she and her 18-year-old son, Nick, who will be attending the University of Washington, will get similar closure next month when he is to graduate from Acalanes High School. The school has tentative plans to have students — at scheduled times — walk by themselves down a corridor decorated with memories from their senior year, then outside to the school entrance where they will walk across the stage and either get their diploma from the principal if public health officials allow it, or pick it up from a table, Ms. Kresnak said.

“I’ve been so impressed by the effort that the school and our community have made to support the seniors,” Ms. Kresnak said. “Acalanes has this saying now of ‘Community Can’t Be Canceled,’ and it’s really been so supportive.”

Humor is keeping Anne O’Brien of South Riding, Va., sane as she deals with a high school senior, a college senior, and a daughter who was supposed to get married in a few weeks but had to postpone the ceremony because of the pandemic.

“We hit the jackpot here,” said Ms. O’Brien, a neonatal intensive care nurse. “If you ask any of the girls, they say they have it worst.”

Aydyn O’Brien, 17, graduating from Freedom High School next month in a virtual ceremony and planning to attend Florida State University, has commiserated with her sister, Marin, 22, graduating from the University of South Carolina — the planned ceremony earlier this month has been postponed, with plans for the in-person ceremony in August.

“It was really nice to have her back home because she understood how I was feeling,” Aydyn said. “We feel bad for each other, and we can share how we are hurting over this.”

The sisters posed for a photo shoot together, with Aydyn in her prom gown and Marin wearing a dress pulled from her bedroom closet since her gown for her sorority formal was back at college with the rest of her belongings.

ImageMarin O’Brien, 22, left, and her sister Aydyn O’Brien, 17, of South Riding, Va., posed for a photo shoot to honor their canceled commencements.
Marin O’Brien, 22, left, and her sister Aydyn O’Brien, 17, of South Riding, Va., posed for a photo shoot to honor their canceled commencements.Credit…Anne O’Brien

Paula Martin of Boulder, Colo., credits her 21-year-old son, Jackson, with helping her cope with her sadness over missing his graduation from Amherst College on May 31 with his optimism and sunny outlook for the future. Jackson also has been a good sounding board for 18-year-old Henry, graduating from Boulder High School and planning to attend the University of Puget Sound, as Henry mourns missed traditions with friends. Ms. Martin hopes a car parade on May 17, where students in their caps and gowns circle the school in cars as teachers, family and friends — appropriately social distanced — line the route with signs, will help bring joy.

“We have learned that it’s OK to mourn what they are missing this year. We have learned not to take rituals for granted,” Ms. Martin said. “The takeaway from this is to find different ways to commemorate or find joy in different kinds of experiences.”

The Martins now have a family book club, started after Ms. Martin joked that they had all run out of things to talk about. She hopes it will continue well beyond the pandemic.

Marcia Maziarz of Washington, D.C., is saddened that neither of her daughters will ever see the other graduate from high school. Anna Ruhlman, 18, had to miss her sister Claire’s high school graduation four years ago because her own middle school graduation ceremony was the same day and time.

“Before that never seemed like that big of a deal, but now it feels different because I won’t get to see Claire graduate from Bates (College) now,” said Anna, who is graduating from School Without Walls High School and planning to attend Temple University.

Ms. Maziarz hopes Anna will do a short commencement walk on their block with other high school seniors who live nearby to celebrate her graduation next month. For Claire, whose virtual graduation ceremony is May 31, Ms. Maziarz received a package from Bates College that included a blank “blessing card.” These cards, filled with notes from loved ones, are normally posted on the arches that graduates pass through during graduation.

“Maybe we can recreate that here somehow,” Ms. Maziarz said.

Shelby Roscoe of Newburgh, Ind., watched helplessly as her 22-year-old daughter, Mahayla, learned she had four days to leave DePauw University before it was closed for the academic year. Her virtual ceremony is May 17.

“She tried to cram in all the senior traditions she could with her friends in those four days,” Ms. Roscoe said. “I’m glad she at least had some closure.”

But Ms. Roscoe’s 18-year-old son, Kolbe, has not been able to cap off his senior year at Signature School in Evansville, Ind., with time-honored traditions, including a planned May 21 graduation ceremony, before he heads off to Purdue University in the fall.

“We will find ways to celebrate them, but there is not that closure of seeing them walk across a stage,” Ms. Roscoe said. “It may be just decorating our front door, to make it loud and big, so people know we are proud of our graduates.”

Melissa Guthrie of Dickson, Tenn., celebrated her birthday on May 8 while her daughter, RaeAnn, 21, graduated from Mississippi College, her degree conferred in a Facebook Live ceremony. RaeAnn watched the celebration with her family from their home.

Ms. Guthrie hopes to see her 18-year-old son, Ian, walk across the stage in June if Dickson County High School can hold its planned ceremony on the football field. Ian plans to attend Nashville State Community College in the fall.

But even if the ceremony takes place, they’ve been told that because of social distancing, Ian would be able to invite only four people.

“He has three siblings, so which one will make the cut, that will be memorable,” Ms. Guthrie said.