The stolen semester: Seniors reflect on moments lost to COVID-19

A lack of celebrations and friendly farewells has left some seniors feeling empty during their final days as ASU students

For college students everywhere, senior year is typically a time of celebration and introspection, a stepping stone between academia and the real world. At ASU, that might have included going to a final Vine Wednesday with friends, pulling one last all-nighter at Hayden Library, or just walking down Palm Walk reminiscing on what it felt like to be on campus for the first time.

But the spring class of 2020 won’t have the chance to end their time in college the traditional way. There will be no end-of-semester parties, no final hangouts with friends at favorite spots on campus, no thanking professors in-person for their mentorship throughout the years. 

Those plans quickly dissolved when the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, forced the temporary closure of universities across the country in mid-March, leaving students and faculty to finish the term online instead.

"You have all these expectations, and these friends that you've had for all these years, and you just know it's never going to be like that again," said Asha Ramakumar, a graduating senior majoring in business with a concentration in global politics. "And it all ended so suddenly."

Graduation ceremonies nationwide are no exception to the disruption caused by the virus. Instead of having in-person ceremonies at campus venues like ASU Gammage, Desert Financial Arena or the Arizona Federal Theatre, ASU’s graduating seniors will receive their send-off virtually for the time being, with ceremonies for different colleges taking place beginning Monday.

Graduating students also have the option to walk after the Fall 2020 or Spring 2021 semesters to compensate for the lack of a physical ceremony. 

The loss of in-person classes and ceremonies is certainly disappointing for many ASU seniors, even with the understanding that such losses are currently unavoidable.  

“I don’t fault ASU for what they’re doing — these are unprecedented times that call for super unfortunate measures,” said Jaycie Seta, a graduating senior majoring in criminal justice and criminology. 

But some seniors are also leaving ASU with unresolved criticism about the University’s handling of its operations during the pandemic. 

A lack of transparency and student support

Tammy Nguyen, a graduating senior studying sustainability, was among the students who criticized the University for its response to the developing crisis. 

She recently voiced those criticisms on Twitter, saying that ASU failed to inform students about what their $50 graduation application fees would be going toward, especially given that the in-person ceremonies were canceled. 

Nguyen tweeted a screenshot from an email she received from ASU, saying that the University was unable to validate or publish the message she wrote for her virtual graduation slide. 

In that message, Nguyen thanked her family, friends and the School of Sustainability for their support during her time at ASU. She also mentioned her plans to finish her master’s degree next year, as well as her goals to keep “fighting for climate action” and “dismantling white institutions.” 

She later said that she wasn't told why her message was withheld — maybe it was because of her criticism of "white institutions," she said. She also speculated that it could have been because of the use of the word “yeet,” which concluded the message, as the submission portal asked students not to include “slang or derogatory terms.” 

Still, Nguyen said that the flagging of her graduation message compounded her existing criticism of how the University has handled operations over the course of the semester. 

"With the virtual graduation, and with them constantly saying 'we're here for our students,' it seemed like censoring what students can say on their slides was just another action that minimized this experience for seniors and other graduating students," Nguyen said.

Nguyen also repeated earlier criticisms of the lack of clarity surrounding what graduation fees will be used for, as well as whether or not students can receive additional financial aid in the aftermath of the disruption. She referenced a previous comment that President Michael Crow made in an interview with The Arizona Republic in late March, in which he said that talk of refunds was "like 48th on a list of 48 things."

"I think it's common sense for anyone that a big chunk of mental health is financial status, and so I think it's just a big disconnect," Nguyen said. "I understand this is such a large institution, and it's so hard to manage and figure out the right way to go about everything ... but being on the receiving end of it is just frustrating." 

When ASU first announced that spring commencement would take place online, a University spokesperson clarified that students would not be receiving refunds for the $50 graduation application fee, as the fee covers "among other administrative items, the graduate’s diploma and diploma case," and not exclusively the costs of a physical ceremony.

The University also did not offer refunds for graduation regalia unless the packages were unopened. 

Other students said that ASU was delayed in its response to the unfolding crisis compared to other universities around the country. 

"I was a little bit surprised that it took so long to make that decision," Ramakumar said of ASU's transition to online classes after spring break. 

Ramakumar also criticized a lack of transparency on behalf of the University in terms of financial reimbursement. 

"It's interesting because you automatically juxtapose ASU's response to UA's response — we're both under the purview of the Arizona State Legislature, right?" Ramakumar said. "It's just surprising that UA seems to have a much more proactive policy, where it feels like ASU's policy has been very reactive."

UA offered eligible students partial refunds for housing and meal plans about a week and a half before ASU offered a $1,500 non-refundable credit to students who moved out of University housing before April 15.

"Only when given a lot of pushback from students and other folks, ASU decided to issue a refund, and I think there's still more that can be done in terms of supporting students," she said.

On top of those frustrations, seniors had to contend with losing out on irreplaceable experiences in their final semester at ASU. For Seta, this meant never seeing some of her classmates in one of her favorite classes again. 

Final classes, foregone memories 

Seta was enrolled in ASU's Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, in which University students take classes alongside incarcerated students in Arizona and learn about issues of crime and justice. Seta's class included 10 ASU students and 10 incarcerated students from a medium-security men's prison. 

That class was cut short when the pandemic forced classes to move online. Seta and her ASU classmates still met weekly over Zoom, but the incarcerated students don't have internet access, Seta said, and University students in the class are required to sign waivers promising not to contact those students outside of the class once it's over. 

"ASU is a big university, and I completely understand that they have to think about the bigger picture, they can't think about all of these differently styled courses," Seta said. "But that is a very hard pill to swallow — I did cry for a very long time when I realized I was never going to be seeing those incarcerated men again."

Without the in-person classes, she said the class has turned into an online justice studies class with just the ASU students.

"(My professors) understand that this isn't the way that we wanted this class to be, ever," Seta said. "That's not what we signed up for. I can definitely tell, especially with myself, that I've lost interest in the class."

That class wasn't the only experience in Seta's year that was cut short. Much like many other seniors, Seta also lost out on final extracurricular and social experiences that she looked forward to for the past several years. 

As a member of ASU's Spirit Squad, Seta was planning on cheering for the Sun Devils during the March Madness and Pac-12 basketball tournaments, both of which were canceled in the wake of the pandemic.

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"I basically cheered at my last game for ASU without even knowing it," Seta said. "That was super hard." 

On top of that, Seta said she's not sure if she'll be able to make it back to campus for a graduation ceremony in the future. And she's not alone — by fall or spring, graduating seniors might have moved on, leaving their undergraduate days behind with little fanfare. 

Will students walk in the future? 

Seta plans to try out for the Dallas Cowboys cheer team before eventually pursuing a career in criminal justice. If she makes the team, she's not sure what her rookie season schedule will look like, or if it'll allow her time to come back to Arizona for a graduation ceremony. 

"Every senior looks forward to graduation, to walking across the stage for, what, 45 seconds of recognition, barely?" Seta said. "But it means so much more than just a piece of paper. We, as a class of 2020, don't get to enjoy that moment together." 

And as a first-generation student, the loss of the opportunity to celebrate is especially pronounced, Seta said.

"I might never get the opportunity to walk across the stage and get a diploma and have all my family watching me, and that's really, really hard," Seta said.

Ramakumar, who plans to study law with a focus on public health at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. next year, also isn't sure if she'll get to celebrate her undergraduate study with a ceremony. Students like her, who are pursuing postgraduate studies elsewhere, might not be able to make the trip back to Arizona later on.

"I don't want to undermine the importance of having a graduation ceremony that is unique to the class of 2020," Ramakumar said. "I understand what they were doing in trying to do a virtual ceremony, and I think that's the best they can do right now — I think it would also be beneficial to host a separate, in-person ceremony for the class of 2020 at the end of the summer, but it's highly contingent upon the safety of that situation." 

Ramakumar understands the difficulty in scheduling, but said she would not return for a graduation ceremony in the later months.

"I feel like the celebration I have is what I've put in the last four years," Ramakumar said. "It's hard, but at the same time, what do you do?"

Moving forward

The end of the school year hasn't silenced previous calls for more information and support from the University. 

Seta said that she and other students would like more information from the University on how the online graduation ceremony will be made special to compensate for the absence of a physical ceremony.

Some ASU ceremonies will have added features to make virtual graduation a little more personal — for example, the Thunderbird School of Global Management will have a "robot ceremony," using telepresence robots as stand-ins for graduating students so that they could still "walk" across the stage. 

But most of ASU's graduates were simply given the opportunity to submit a photo, video and quote to be included in their college's pre-recorded virtual ceremony. 

"I probably will participate in the virtual ceremony, but I'm not too happy with that," Seta said. "It's a hard subject ... in the future, ASU will be able to move forward and it'll just be a thought of that one class that had their graduation ceremony online, but to the spring class of 2020, it'll be the only graduation ceremony of their life."

"I mean, do they plan on giving us any money back? That's a question I'd like to ask," Seta said. "Crow likes to say that he knows what we're going through, but I don't think that that's true."

Crow said in a Q&A with The State Press in March that the University would "be fair" when it came to reimbursements, but did not promise refunds for tuition or unused campus services. Later that week, UA parents filed a lawsuit against the Arizona Board of Regents asking for refunds from all three of Arizona's public universities. 

In spite of those lingering worries, Ramakumar said, many seniors understand that the sacrifices they had to make are part of a bigger goal: to protect public health and control the spread of the coronavirus. 

Ramakumar recognized the challenge ASU faces in providing the customary experience at the end of senior year while also promoting a healthy environment, saying the two are unfortunately "mutually exclusive" at this time.

"So many lives are at stake, and really trying to figure out how to protect people is incredibly important, and social distancing measures are quite effective when done properly," Ramakumar said. "But I would be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed." 


Reach the reporter at Vandana.Ravikumar@asu.edu and follow @vandana_rav on Twitter. 

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