‘It’s been a wild ride:’ UofL students reflect on graduating in the middle of a global pandemic
By ALICIA KELSO
On Dec. 12, UofL will host commencement featuring traditional elements like “Pomp and Circumstance” and messages from the president, deans and provost.
Unsurprisingly, however, the ceremony will be delivered virtually, a product of a relentless pandemic that has gripped the world for nearly a year now. While the in-person commencement ceremony in May was canceled – replaced with an online celebration – this time around seems tougher. The tunnel seems much longer than most of us expected.
Still, despite some pandemic weariness, our graduates are also tougher, and they’re not willing to let this lingering crisis rain on their milestone.
“It’s been a wild ride. I’m grateful for this experience and I believe this has made me mentally stronger,” said Charice Johnson, a Louisville native graduating with a communication degree. She notes that the beginning of 2020 was a bigger challenge, particularly the transition to work-from-home in March. She balanced her job with Student Affairs, with her education, with raising a fourth grader, who is also learning from home.
Johnson leaned on the positives; for example, being at home allowed her to accomplish tasks she would have otherwise been too tired to do in the evenings. UofL HR’s Learning Cafes also helped keep her optimistic.
“Often, employees may feel besides themselves in certain situations, but those workshops have maintained a sense of community,” she said. “I’ve been able to seize opportunities to grow and learn as both an employee and a student.”
Johnson plans to continue working for UofL as a program assistant, senior for the University Career Center, while expanding her education by taking online courses provided by various institutions.
Meherunissa Naseem, a biology major/psychology minor from India, also believes she is graduating with sharpened resiliency.
“Though finishing my degree in the middle of a pandemic and not having a traditional ceremony or celebrating with friends and family is not what I have expected, I still feel fortunate to be able to accomplish the biggest dream of my life,” she said.
Naseem identifies bigger challenges, such as graduating debt-free and transitioning from India to the United States.
“When look back at it all, the decision I made and all the challenges I faced, I feel blessed and grateful,” she said, acknowledging her strong support system in her family.
Naseem chose to endure those challenges and attend UofL because of its diversity and research opportunities. When asked what she loves most about her soon-to-be-alma-mater, she simply answers, “Everything – the infrastructure, the buildings, the professors, the faculty, the staff, the students.”
Next, Naseem plans to move to a different state and gain some experience in biology before choosing a grad school to attend.
Kendall Ruber, a graduate student from Butler, Kentucky, describes the experience of finishing her degree in the middle of a global pandemic as simply, “surreal.”
“At the beginning of the pandemic, when we had to convert to online instruction on a whim, my classes seemed like a blur, and time seemed to move both fast and slow at the same time,” she said. “As the months have passed, it still seems like the concept of time doesn’t exist anymore. I still have trouble processing the fact that my graduation occurred and that eight months have passed since we were last in the classroom together.”
Adjusting to online learning has been a challenge for Ruber, particularly as she also works a full-time job.
“It was grueling to be sitting at my desk alone for upwards of 14 hours a day without any human interaction,” she said, describing herself as a “people person.”
She is trying to keep herself positive by remembering what she is grateful for. That includes a field – business analytics – where she can work remotely, watching her friends and classmates chasing their dreams and staying healthy.
Ruber, who also earned her undergraduate degree at UofL, chose to the school because of its diversity.
“UofL has exposed me to various cultures, identities and ideologies and I have come out a better person and professional because of it,” she said. “UofL has pushed me to challenge everything I had previously experienced coming into college. Growing up in an extremely homogenous community, I had a very narrow view of the world. UofL broke down many of those barriers and continued to introduce me to people and places that would allow me to grow.”
Ruber is currently assisting teaching statistics for UofL’s Online MBA program and hopes to one day become a data scientist.
From surreal to “overjoyed.” That’s how Tony Hobson, who is graduating with an organizational leadership and learning degree, describes finishing his degree amid this unusual environment.
“I am so overjoyed it’s actually happening,” he said. Hobson, who started his college experience in the early 1990s, keeps himself optimistic by looking for meaning behind these challenges.
“At the end of the day, if we’re going to get through these tough times, there has to be a purpose,” he said.
Hobson’s post-graduate plans are to pursue management-based positions, possibly in transportation, and to further his acting career.
Christian Loriel Lucas reflects on her time at UofL with a deep sense of pride and relief. The 35-year-old mom juggled attending school amid a pandemic with working full-time at the School of Medicine with having a child learning from home and another child whose daycare was closed.
“It was a lot to deal with. I cried a few times. I laugh about it now,” she said.
Lucas recalls one night in particular when her children were running around upstairs and her husband was on a work call. She was hunkered down in the basement trying to focus on a literary theory question for class.
“I ended up sobbing over one question. My brain just couldn’t focus,” she said. “But I survived it. The biggest challenge has been trying to keep it all together – family and work came first, school came second.”
Still, at times, she had to swap priorities and leave the house to get some peace and quiet for her schoolwork. Other times, she couldn’t bond with her cohort because she was with her family.
“I had no time for life outside of work and home, but I utilized every moment I had to get things done,” Lucas said. “I knew I couldn’t do everything, but I managed to keep myself and my family afloat.”
Her family, and the support they provided, is what sustained and motivated her. She also acknowledges a strong support system among her coworkers, friends and professors.
“Knowing that somebody was rooting for me was the positive energy I needed to keep going,” Lucas said. “I really felt bad at times for taking my family through this just so I could get my degree. But they are so proud of me.”
Lucas’ post-graduation plans are to continue her creative writing career and she plans to write “a lot.” Her work has already been published, including in “Midnight & Indigo,” a publication that celebrates Black women writers.