Saying goodbye to classmates and professors. A chance to complete independent research and show work in the undergraduate showcase. Salads from Champion’s Kitchen. A weekly ritual of watching Survivor with friends. The satisfaction of walking out of a final. One last March Madness at State Street.
Senior year is often described as a year of lasts, of endings and of special moments. For the Class of 2020, their lasts came earlier than anticipated as the coronavirus pandemic escalated in the United States and in Kentucky.
On Wednesday, March 11, the University of Kentucky announced that classes would be online for the rest of the semester and that commencement ceremonies would be postponed until they could be held in a “healthy and safe environment.
A friend texted the news to Kaitlyn Roe, a senior from Olive Hill, Ky.
“For a moment, I was silent,” said Roe. “I just sat there holding my phone. I eventually burst into tears. I cried into my mother’s shoulder and she did her best to comfort me. I don’t think that I have truly sobbed like that at any point during my UK career. The tears didn’t stop all day. I would just sit and cry. I think that I’m still very numb to it all.”
Roe, an English major, has been wearing a bracelet inscribed with the date of commencement since September 2019.
“The bracelet was a reminder of what I was doing it all for. No matter how happy you are, life can get stressful and we can feel defeated. On days when I feel my weakest, I look at the bracelet and remember how far I have come and what I have to look forward to,” said Roe.
She said was initially drawn to UK because because it was bigger than anything she had grown up around.
“I was home schooled from the fourth grade until I graduated high school a year early in 2016,” said Roe. “UK was always on my mind. It was my goal, my dream. I knew that going to college was something that I wanted, but I needed an adventure. UK is the only college that I applied to for this reason.”
An ending no one could have predicted
Four years later, Roe and the—according to general UK demographic data—roughly 6,000 members of her graduating class are concluding their time at UK in a way no one could have predicted.
“I feel like the ending is honestly pretty fitting considering how the previous four years have gone,” said Kait White, a senior in the College of Education. “It’s truly been a wild ride from start to finish, and this is definitely a senior semester none of us will ever forget.”
UK had originally planned for two weeks of online classes after spring break, but as colleges around the country closed and the World Health Organization upgraded COVID-19 to a global pandemic, UK decided to move online for the entire semester.
“My first reaction was I thought that there was some overreaction,” said Chancellor Lewis, a senior from Lexington. “I felt media was kind of helping to feed a scare, and I thought it was over-reacting but I must say my view has really changed on that.”
A “hometown guy,” Lewis said choosing UK was an easy decision because he could stay and develop his personal network. When UK’s announcement about online classes came out, Lewis said it helped settle things for him. His family decided it was best to stay home for spring break.
Lewis said he felt like many people, especially college students, were not taking the warnings seriously enough.
“They all have the right to make their own decision, but I think they need to remember it comes with a cost and they could potentially endanger their friends and loved ones, especially their elderly family members,” said Lewis.
The rapid developments over the last couple of weeks have left some seniors reeling from what feels like an abrupt ending.
“It’s shocking for something so meaningful to end so unexpectedly,” said senior Olivia Davis.
But she said that’s just how she would describe her college experience.
“I never expected to find my passion and love my future career so much. I never expected to find sisters as an only child. I never expected to find shoulders to cry on, people to lean on, or peers to laugh with so genuinely. Everything about UK was unexpected, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way,” said Davis.
The inability to say real goodbyes is a common regret among seniors.
“One last that I am particularly saddened about is the last moment I had in the classroom with all those in my major,” said Ashley Bisschop, a senior English and communications sciences and disorders double major. “If I had known that that last day was going to be our last day, I would have hugged people harder and told more people how much I will miss them.
Roe said not getting to say goodbye to friends and roommates will be the hardest part for her.
“I truly wanted to meet with professors at the end of the semester to thank them. I really wanted to be there in person to tell them how much they have inspired me,” said Roe. “Now, I will write them letters.”
Will senioritis affect online classes?
Online instruction began on Monday, March 23, what would have been the first day back to classes after spring break.
Seniors, already coping with “senioritis”, said they anticipated struggles with online classes as they remain at home in isolation.
“I’m not concerned about my level of motivation, but rather my ability to focus,” said Roe. “Life can get hectic and distracting at home, we get caught up in family and friends. UK was my place to find a quiet spot and read or write an essay.”
White said she has sympathy for professors, who are quickly adapting their classroom strategies and dealing with the challenge of maintaining student interest.
“I feel like a lot of students aren’t really taking the time to appreciate just how much strain all of this is also putting on professors,” said White. She said she has seen ideas about Zoom drinking games in her friend groups and that she is not surprised by that approach.
Amidst the transition to online classes, seniors are grappling with what this change means for their senior year.
“This has taken away my opportunity to have my ‘lasts’,” said Davis. “I was unaware that they were lasts when they were happening, but my last day of school on campus, my last date party with my sorority, my last in-person exam. They are things we take for granted but shouldn’t have.”
Roe said she was trying to stay positive and thankful despite the disappointment of a postponed commencement.
“I know in my heart that I lived UK life to the fullest, but part of me wishes I had just sat down and looked around more. I wish I had slowed down and enjoyed the little moments,” said Roe.
In addition to closing out the semester, graduating seniors are adjusting to life in the time of a pandemic.
Life after college, in a worsening economy
Lewis lives with his parents, but living situations are up in the air of many other students, including his friends who work as resident advisers, he said.
“I would like to go back home to see my family, but I also would like to lessen the amount of contact that I have with people, so that is not an option for me right now,” said Bisschop, who lives off campus.
Roe, who lived in the dorms all four years, went back to campus over spring break to move out. UK announced that all residents would have to move out by March 27, expect those who applied to stay because of extenuating circumstances.
White, who lives in an off-campus apartment, said she worries about making rent while her job is on hold.
“I work for the local school district, but I’m not on salary, meaning I’m not getting paid while school is out,” said White. “So while I don’t have to worry about moving out of the dorm yet, I am still stressed about how I’m going to make rent while effectively unemployed for the foreseeable future.”
Unemployment rates are beginning to rise across the country as service industry businesses are told to shut down. Lewis was laid off from his job at a restaurant, the same restaurant where he had planned to hold his graduation party.
“It’s definitely going to have an economic impact on everyone,” said Lewis. “This virus doesn’t discriminate. It’s going to affect all of us.”
Lewis is already applying to jobs in hopes of helping his family through economic uncertainty. His father works for Toyota and his workplace is already shutting down some days. His mother works as a bookkeeper in a medical office, but elective procedures are being halted.
“I hate being home, I like being out and about and giving back to the community as far as doing something productive. I want to get out there and work because I want to help someone out,” said Lewis.
Plans outside of work are also being put on hold; Lewis and his family are reconsidering a trip to South Carolina, Bisschop canceled a senior trip to Florida and White had planned on traveling to Europe this summer as a reward.
“That’s definitely getting postponed. I’ll probably push it back by a year and celebrate my first year of full-time employment instead,” said White. She has a position lined up for August but will likely try to pick up something to get through the summer.
White said she was confident she could pull through the shifting economy.
“I’m an education major, so let’s just say that I was never really in this for economic prosperity. It is alarming, but these things happen,” said White
Like Bisschop, Davis and Lewis have plans for graduate school. Davis will attend Marshall University, and said her major will help her navigate the economy.
“The benefit of my degree is that it is medical,” said Davis. “People will always need the medical field. Not only that, but that jobs for speech pathologists are in high demand.”
Last week, Lewis accepted a position in a UK master’s program in Communication Sciences and Disorders.
“That’s slated to start in June, we’ll see if that happens. We’re hoping that the virus is settling down by then, but that’s the plan,” said Lewis. “I’m staying at UK for a while, that’s for sure.”
Roe also hopes to return to UK, where she has planted roots, for a master’s degree.
“I have always been more geared towards worrying about what makes me happy, rather than what makes me the most money. I have faith that the Lord will provide a way for me to live my dreams,” said Roe.
Heartbreak after a postponed commencement
One of those dreams was to walk across the stage at Rupp for graduation. As a homeschooled student and first-generation college student, Roe’s family has never gotten a real chance to celebrate her academic achievements, she said.
“I hope and pray that it’s rescheduled for a later date and not just combined with December,” said Roe. “I feel like the Class of 2020 is capable of rallying and dedicating a weekend to our accomplishments this summer or fall.”
For many of the seniors, the postponement of commencement is more about their loved ones than themselves.
“With the ceremony being pushed back, I have family members who can no longer attend and that in and of itself is saddening,” said Bisschop. Because of the postponement, her siblings will have to change flights and her grandmother, who has a compromised immune system, will no longer be able to attend.
Davis said the postponement was devastating to her and her family.
“I think it is hardest on my mother because she never got the chance to walk across the stage and receive her bachelor’s degree,” Davis said. “So, me being able to walk across the stage was a big deal for her. I wanted that chance to represent my family on the stage and let them say, ‘That’s my daughter, she did it.’”
Roe said she and her mom walked around campus before moving out so she would be able to take senior pictures. It’s “overall heartbreak” for her family, Roe said.
With classes online and commencement postponed, the mood among seniors is mixed.
Lewis said his friends are trying to lighten to mood with memes and potential Zoom meet-ups.
“If you don’t laugh, you’re going to drive yourself crazy,” he said.
Roe said her friends are numb.
“No one is angry. We all respect the decision to cancel everything. I think we are all just still in shock. I don’t think it will feel real until May comes around and we aren’t there,” said Roe.