Walking Across the Stage: Grieving Graduation, 2020

Walking Across the Stage: Grieving Graduation, 2020

Sukanya Shukla

On April 6, 2020 at 12:05 pm, Bates college decided to cancel our in-person graduation. When I read President Spencer’s email, I was heartbroken as were most, if not all of my friends. Soon after, I got a text from a distant relative asking me about my health. Since the news about graduation being canceled was still on my mind, I almost instantly started venting to them about it when they decided to respond with, “It’s just a ceremony.” I chose to say nothing in response to this and turned off my phone. Later that day, in the middle of trying to make sense of it all, I watched the class of 2019’s graduation video. Each student that walked across the stage had a sense of pride on their face. Between all the hardships and struggles that came with being in college, they had finally earned their right to hold a Bachelor’s degree from Bates. Yes, it is just a ceremony if you only consider parents from all over the world who gather to watch their children become college graduates. But, that is just the surface of what “walking across the stage” means to a senior. 

When I came to Bates 4 years ago, I had a very different expectation from how the next 4 years would pan out for me compared to how life actually turned out. And, during the winter semester of freshman year, I found myself in the psych ward at St. Mary’s after being diagnosed with PTSD and Bipolar Depression. I almost dropped out. The only reason I returned for my sophomore year was that when I dreamt about what I want my life to look like, I realized how much I wanted to finish school. I wanted to graduate from Bates, even if that meant taking high doses of antidepressants and intense therapy. I knew I needed to find all the tools possible in order to be okay, just so I could get the education I had dreamed about all of high school. For the past 3 years, I have played this dream in my head from start to finish every time I lost the mental capacity to finish a class. I told myself that when I’m attending my graduation ceremony, none of this would have mattered. All the hospital bills and the medication and the hysteric episodes would be worth it because I would have the education that I envisioned for myself.

When my peers and I embarked on our college career 4 years ago and decided to stay strong in the face of many, many hardships, we did so to be able to walk across the stage in our cap and gown and celebrate ourselves, even if it was for 15 short seconds. 

Every time my mother faced criticism for being a divorced single parent who “made the wrong choice by trying to raise two girls alone,” I would tell myself that there would not be a bigger way to stand up to this criticism than earning a Bates education and walking across the graduation stage in May 2020. Last year, when I saw her tear up at my sister’s graduation ceremony, I realized how truly proud she must be to have done it all by herself- making sure that my sister and I got an enriching education no matter the cost, working multiple jobs to give us the best of the best and always being emotionally available to her daughters, all while listening to many distant relatives tell her that she would never be enough. So, to me, walking across the stage meant that I did not allow someone else’s actions to upend my life 3 years ago. It meant that I had taken control of my depression instead of the other way around. It meant that my mom could watch me become a college graduate and feel proud of the outstanding job that she has done as a parent. 

Sure, one can argue that these things are still true. That I will still get my degree. That I did not allow another person’s actions to change the life that I had imagined for myself and my mom is proud of me for finishing college, irrespective of this year’s graduation ceremony being canceled. But, you see, me and so many of my friends and their families have pushed through some extremely hard challenges for the past four years and many of us have done this with May 2020 in mind. For students from low- income houses, walking across the stage represents being able to celebrate the efforts they put into pulling 40 hrs of work shifts every week just to be able to pay their student loans. For first-generation students, it means celebrating their success in carving out their own path to college even when they had to single-handedly do it all. For students of color, it means celebrating their ability to complete their education in a predominantly white institution. For international students, it represents celebrating the coming together of two different cultural worlds that they have been a part of. For students with depression, walking across the stage signifies a celebration of their resilience and strength on days when getting out of bed was a struggle let alone turning in a paper on time. For students who have been through domestic violence at Bates, it is a celebration of the strength they had to find in themselves to sit in the same room as their abusive exes. For a lot of students, having the opportunity to walk across the stage would have almost validated their struggles in college. When my peers and I embarked on our college career 4 years ago and decided to stay strong in the face of many, many hardships, we did so to be able to walk across the stage in our cap and gown and celebrate ourselves, even if it was for 15 short seconds. 

My only intention behind writing this article was to shed light on why walking across the stage is so important for so many of us. It is not that I do not understand the intensity of this global pandemic. I wake up every morning with nothing but gratitude in my heart for all the people out there who are helping the world remain functional even in the middle of all of this. But, I think amongst all the things that were taken away from so many people in the blink of an eye, having a graduation ceremony was something that got taken away from the class of 2020. I believe that it is not only valid but also okay to grieve losing a chance to celebrate college and the strength it took to finish it. To the class of 2020, it is okay to grieve not having a graduation ceremony. To the people who are around the class of 2020, please do not trivialize anyone’s feelings about not being able to have a graduation. If someone is venting to you about not having a graduation ceremony, let them. Just because they are upset about this does not mean that they are ignoring the adversity of the world’s current situation. All it means is that they need a minute to be sad. So just give them a minute to be sad.