Earning a degree is more than just about earning a piece of paper. The blood sweat and tears college students put in every year to reach the pinnacle moment of graduation is the ultimate achievement.
On May 18, I was supposed to have that moment. My journey through college is not a traditional one, so crossing the stage is a long-awaited milestone for my academic career. Now that moment has been taken away from not only me but also every graduating class of 2020 across the country.
The academic finish line was once so clear. Now it has become a blur along with a gray area of endless uncertainty mixed with fear as most things have become surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.
I graduated from high school in 2005 and was a college drop out by the summer of 2006. I had no clue what I was doing in college or why I was there. I just went through the motions of a life others wanted and expected from me.
I eventually stumbled into a California Army National Guard recruiting station in 2007 and spent the next nine years proudly serving my country with the 185th Military Police Battalion.
My time in the service gave me the confidence and the focus I needed to go back to school and to successfully reach this juncture in my academic career, and then suddenly, the world stopped spinning.
I do not think I have seen the world stop like this since the twin towers fell. I was 14 years old at the time, weeks into my freshman year of high school, too young to understand the gravity of the situation.
Here we are again, the world at a standstill, but I am now a 32-year-old mother, Starbucks supervisor, and a college senior attending Clark Atlanta University, weeks away from graduating. I recall having to crowd around the television with my classmates the morning of 9/11, and together, we watched the details unfold. COVID-19 has us isolated, adhering to social distancing practices as we follow the details from our cell phones, tablets and laptops. The way technology has evolved seems too convenient for this scenario.
On the evening of March 12, I sat alone on my couch, watching the 6 o’clock news about the COVID-19 updates. Suddenly, reports came in that CAU was closed for the remainder of the semester, classes will be converting online after an extended week of spring break, and graduation had been postponed.
After a rough start to the beginning of my last semester, I could not be more excited to go on spring break and fill the vacancy of my school days with nothingness. That nothingness felt like a black hole after that newscast.
I am not selfish, I completely understood the necessity and the safety precautions the Atlanta University Center Consortium was taking, but I broke down in tears.
There were so many emotions felt at that moment: Anger, sadness, fear, doubt and frustration. Spring break had just started, but my official last day of being a CAU student was March 13, the day I took my last midterm. My heart broke at that realization.
I spent the remainder of my extended spring break working since my Starbucks location had not closed. As the weeks went by, only essential businesses were allowed to stay open, though challenging as it turned out to be, I was grateful I was able to continue to work.
The transition to online learning was not all that great. Of my five classes, only one of my professors held Zoom class meetings. My other classes the professors just updated the syllabus and gave out dates for when assignments were due, pretty much forcing my classmates and me to figure it out on our own. It was slightly disappointing, but we just assumed the professor either could not work Zoom or just did not want to since dates were given for when assignments were due.
Since school was online now, and I only had one class that met online Tuesdays and Thursdays, I was able to work more hours during the week and get out of the house to decompress.
The decompression was short-lived as more employees decided they wanted to take Starbucks’ option of opting out of work until May 3. So, for the last month, our store hours have changed at least three times, our drive-through line is insane since we are the only Starbucks open now within a 25-mile radius, and customers are projecting their frustrations on us every day. It is a frustrating time for all of us, and my team and I are doing our best to serve our community.
I thought about opting out as well. Starbucks will continue to pay us whether we choose to work or not but seeing my regular customers and being around my coworkers helps to take my mind off of the craziness and uncertainty surrounding this pandemic.
It has been even more difficult working and trying to get assignments done while everyone is home. I did the majority of my work sitting in front of the Woodi Café inside the school’s library. Now I have to wait until everyone is sleep for me to get anything done. My shift begins at 4:30 a.m., so I would either stay up all night doing my homework and then go to work or suffer through the day with distractions.
I often think about how my academic peers are getting through the remainder of the semester. I did not stay on campus, so not much changed other than not having to commute to Atlanta every day, though I am grateful to have saved so much money on gas.
But for my peers, the majority of them being traditional students and growing into adulthood on campus, I imagine life for them to be a bit more difficult right now, especially the seniors. The bonds they have built over the last four years still had more college life to add. For that to be taken away from them, is a different type of pain that I will never understand, I can only empathize.
I am thankful and fortunate to have lived a life in the real world and had a career before attending college my second time around. My understanding of the world is entirely different from theirs. I understand the necessity for change, no matter how drastic or sudden it may be. That is something only life can teach you.
All I can do now is continue to work for however long I am allowed and finish the remainder of the semester online. It is the only way I know to do my part to help the world achieve whatever our new normal way of life will be when the virus is either contained or, hopefully, eradicated.
Meanwhile, the disappointment of May 18 will remain heavy on my heart and mind. To be honest, crossing the stage was not for me; it was for my mother and, most importantly, for my daughter to witness. I wanted so badly for my baby girl to see her mommy cross that finish line so she can see what is possible.
The following day will be her fourth birthday, and we were supposed to spend the week celebrating her life and my academic achievements at the happiest place on earth, Disney World, but it is closed. So now, both achievements will be celebrated at home, social distancing from our neighbors, and self-quarantining.