Commencement curveball: Graduating students jolted by COVID-19

Paulina Jeng, Senior Class Council president, studies at her family's home in Arkansas.

“We’ve been through a lot together,” said Paulina Jeng, UC Berkeley’s Senior Class Council president, of the Class of 2020. She’s home in Arkansas for spring break, but will return to campus to see friends and move out of her sorority house, where the close-knit sisters had adhered to social distancing even at meals, sitting a chair or two apart. (Photo by Andrew Jeng)

In 2016, Luke Birdsong left Baltimore to attend UC Berkeley, a school he’d admired, but never seen. It would be 75 to 80 degrees there, he thought, perfect for studying on the beach. He’d follow a calm, predictable path to graduation — picking a major, “like business or computer science,” he said, solely to get a job — and enjoy a mix of studies, friends and fun.

This spring, Birdsong instead will earn two degrees, in society and environment and in geography, and he’s eyeing law school. Like many of this year’s graduating seniors, he’s also experienced the past four years at Berkeley as anything but smooth.

“I never expected so many disruptions, so many things atypical of what I thought a college experience should be,” said Birdsong. “There was the 2016 presidential election, then the Milo (Yiannopoulos) violence, two years of wildfires, the PG&E power shutoffs last year, the recent UC graduate student strikes. And now, the semester’s ending in the most dramatic fashion.”

Last week Monday, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, campus officials canceled all remaining in-person instruction. Classes, exams and chats with professors are online, libraries and labs closed. Many students will finish the semester in their hometowns. As of March 19, all Californians are ordered to stay home — except to get food, prescriptions or health care — and, when out, to stay six feet apart.

Graduating senior Luke Birdsong stands near the empty Berkeley campus during the COVID-19 crisis.

Luke Birdsong, a senior double-majoring in society and environment and in geography, stands on the northern end of a near-empty campus. UC Berkeley canceled all remaining in-person instruction on Monday, March 16, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (UC Berkeley photo by Gretchen Kell)

This week, graduating students learned that 2020 Spring Commencement will be either virtual or postponed. They’ll get to decide in a survey due Thursday.

“This is an uncertain time: Will we have a graduation, or not? Will I see my friends again?” said senior Patrica “Betty” Besada, an art practice major. “All I know is that this is happening to guarantee our health, which is more valuable than anything.”

The Class of 2020’s ups and downs, chronicled in a recent blog post in the Daily Californian, “give new meaning to surviving four years at Cal,” said media studies major Paulina Jeng, a senior who’s at home in Fayetteville, Arkansas for spring break, maybe longer.

As president of the Senior Class Council, a campus organization founded in 1870 to build class unity, she’s now brainstorming how to do so online for Senior Week, April 27-May 1. Annual traditions include Senior Prom, a hike up Tightwad Hill to paint the Big C a final time, a bar crawl and Last Lecture, given by a favorite professor.

But when it comes to graduation, she’s voting for offline, in-person. “Our entire semester’s already been moved online, due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control,” said Jeng, “so to have something special like graduation minimized to an online performance would feel insensitive.”

Patrica Besada talks about her final semester at Berkeley and the COVID-19 crisis. (UC Berkeley video by Roxanne Makasdjian and Patrica Besada)

Faculty members like Martha Olney, a Berkeley teaching professor of economics, are adjusting to all-online teaching and an end to the casual, yet essential, chats instructors have with students after class or while walking across campus.

“I’m having office hours via Zoom with students, and I sometimes ask them, ‘Where are you?’ Recently, one was in Chicago, one in Sacramento, two in Berkeley, one in Tracy. They’ve all just scattered to the winds,” said Olney, who has a son graduating from Vassar College. “They’ve been through a lot, have had a unique experience. I’ve advised them to keep a journal, because 30 to 40 years from now, their kids or grandkids will want to know what they were thinking, feeling and experiencing.”

Architecture major Sarah Dey, a graduating senior from Lafayette who, on top of it all, recently fractured her knee playing soccer, is doing just that.

“Being able to ‘word vomit’ and express all the little or big things I’m upset about, confused about, helps me get through these emotions and not hold on to them,” she said. “I can then ask myself, ‘What are the things that made me happy today? What are the memories of this time that I’m going to hold on to?”

This spring’s graduates “will get through this, will get what they can get from their remaining experience at Berkeley,” said physics professor Bob Jacobsen, dean of undergraduate students in the College of Letters and Science. “But they’ve had to step back from lots of things they were counting on doing, and it hurts.”

Alexa Tisopulos, a graduating senior, poses with her dog Rosie at her family's home in Claremont, California

Senior Alexa Tisopulos, doing coursework at home in Claremont, California, said she’s teaching Rosie, the family dog, how to join a Zoom lecture. (Photo by Melina Tisopulos)

A lost season, salvage attempts

Graduation isn’t just a ceremony, but a rite of passage that can span weeks, even months. Exhibits of final class projects, parties, goodbyes with favorite friends and professors, photo sessions in regalia at campus landmarks and family travel arrangements are all a part, as are triumphant and tearful embraces.

But like Spring Commencement, those are now canceled, postponed — and even a health risk.

“My friend Kate and I were talking about the last four years, before she went home to Folsom for a few weeks, and at the end of it, she teared up, and I was crying, too,” said senior Alexa Tisopulos, who will receive degrees in both interdisciplinary studies and psychology. “She said, ‘Oh, my God, all I want to do is give you a hug, but all I can give you is an elbow bump!’”

Graduate student Chitra Balasubramanian was hoping her parents, in India, could travel to her graduation ceremony, but along came COVID-19

Graduate student Chitra Balasubramanian was hoping to see her parents for the first time in two years at her School of Public Policy graduation ceremony, but along came COVID-19. (UC Berkeley photo by Bora Reed)

Chitra Balasubramanian, a graduate student from India in the Master of Public Policy program, hasn’t seen her parents, who live in Vadodara, in the Indian state of Gujarat, for two years. She was eagerly awaiting their arrival — and that of her sister, from Bombay — for the School of Public Policy’s graduation event this May.

“They’d already gotten their visas,” she said, “but thankfully, not any (plane) tickets.”

More than the ceremony, Balasubramanian said she’ll mourn the loss of her close-knit cohort’s prom-like, end-of-semester social gathering in April and a final community dinner with a talent show, remarks by faculty and the chance to meet colleagues’ partners and children “before we, as graduates, move to different parts of the world.”

COVID-19 wasn’t even a term when undergraduate Frida Hernandez, majoring in American studies and media studies, bought a mid-length graduation dress “with lace all over, and white,” along with fancy shoes with four-inch heels.

Today, she hopes the two ceremonies she’d looked forward to — Undergraduate Interdisciplinary Studies and Spring Commencement — will still take place, but not online. Her intent in walking across the stage isn’t to make a fashion statement, but to be a role model for her 8th grade sister and 9th grade brother.

Frida Hernandez poses with her little brother and sister, who look up to her as a role model for finishing college

Frida Hernandez (right), a senior and the first in her family to graduate from college, is adamant about her graduation ceremonies being in-person, not online. Her sister Mia and brother Diego consider her a role model. (Photo by Ricardo Garcia)

“I’m first-generation and low-income, so graduation is a big deal,” the San Diego resident said, adding that she’s sure her family would find a way to travel north again, if the events are postponed. Between 15 and 20 friends and family from Southern California, Las Vegas and even Mexico had planned to attend each of her ceremonies.

Hernandez and a small group of recipients of Alumni Scholars Program scholarships also helped design a hike, yoga workshop and other events for California Alumni Association scholars. “But each of those events involves people coming together,” she said, “instead of keeping a distance from each other.”

Likewise, Dey and Birdsong, both campus ambassadors, devoted countless hours as the student coordinators of Cal Day. But the campus’s annual open house, typically with 40,000 visitors, is no place for social distancing, so the April 18 event is off. “People commit to Berkeley, change their lives based on this day,” said Dey. “It is something to be proud of; it’s sad not to get to do it.”

But they’ve found a new outlet for their energy and skills: Cal Week. The new, online-only event, to be held April 19-24, is being created to wow prospective students with virtual fare, including tours and live Q&As created by departments, schools and units across campus.

Sproul Plaza is empty on a recent morning during the coronavirus pandemic.

On a typical school day, Sproul Plaza is bustling with students. As the coronavirus spreads worldwide, however, members of the campus community are sheltering in their homes. (UC Berkeley photo by Gretchen Kell)

Learning resilience

The protests, purposeful power blackouts, wildfires and other turmoil the Class of 2020 witnessed came and went — except for COVID-19, and it’s not going away soon, said Olney. “Classes, office hours — all of it — went online March 10,” she said. “Now, it’s for the rest of the semester.”

For students, the pandemic presents more questions than answers: Where should I finish the semester? What if I can’t finish my work as required? Will graduation be online or postponed? Could all this hurt my job search, my chances for grad school? Will I see my friends in person before we graduate? Will my loved ones, or I, get sick?

Wherever they’re sheltered in place, students said they’re holding on, motivating each other to the finish line by connecting online — playing video games, holding study sessions, meeting for virtual lunches and happy hours, exercising together — and soaking up support and advice from family, friends and Berkeley staff and faculty.

Sarah Dey, a senior, puts together a puzzle during the COVID-19 mandate to shelter in place

Sarah Dey, who will earn her architecture degree this May, puts together a puzzle of Italy’s Cinque Terre in her Berkeley apartment, her fractured knee in a brace, during the state’s COVID-19 mandate to shelter in place. (Photo by Sam Brocchini)

Architect Kyle Steinfeld, associate professor for Dey’s senior architecture studio, where students’ final projects can’t physically be displayed during the shutdown, even “contacted professionals from around the world … to participate in a Zoom call that lasted five hours — several were there the entire time — to critique our work. Some live in Spain and Singapore and got up in the middle of the night to be with us,” said Dey. “It was pretty moving to see these people also quarantined in their homes, dealing with the same struggles and still managing to make it work.”

During the past weeks, “although sad, and I’ve definitely cried a little bit, I’ve come to see how fantastic people are in my life,” said Tisopulos, adding that the campus community “really comes together to care for its students, staff and faculty.”

Students need to remember that the current crisis “is not just happening at Berkeley, it’s worldwide. Every university is going through it,” said Olney. “Any graduate program that doesn’t take into account that the spring 2020 semester has a big asterisk around it isn’t doing a good job. Graduates may have a longer job search, as we’re headed into a whopper of a recession, but it will be a delay, not a permanent stop. We have to believe that our lives will get back to some semblance of normal.”

Looking back on her undergraduate days, Tisopulos said her Berkeley education is even richer because of the unforeseen challenges that surfaced in the world,  both near and far away.

“There couldn’t have been a better way to learn resilience than being at Cal the last four years,” she said. “I’m a remarkably different person than I was four years ago, … and I have a better gauge on what it takes to adapt to what comes my way.”

Birdsong agreed. “All my experiences, from fall 2016 up until the present, have taught me how to handle unpredictable and unorthodox situations,” he said. “I’m beyond thankful for my time here. What an adventure we’ve been on.”