College seniors deal with virtual graduations, uncertain job market from pandemic

For many students, the highlight of their college life is walking across a stage in front of their classmates, family and friends to receive a diploma they have spent years working to obtain.

The class of 2020 version will be sitting in front of a computer, watching a live streamed virtual graduation ceremony or waiting for later in the year — or even next year — for a live ceremony, if that’s possible.

Yes, these are strange times.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown life into upheaval, college seniors in some cases are still waiting to hear how their schools will handle graduation ceremonies. The class of 2020 (referred to as the class of COVID-19 in a story last month) has had to deal with a lot, from online classes to the possible cancellation of commencement ceremonies to a scary job market facing a recession.

“It’s crazy to think that, you know, this is what it’s come down to because of the virus,” said Christian Figurniak of Cutchogue, a senior at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island.

College careers are coming to an abrupt end, and seniors have had to think on their feet about their future plans as conditions have rapidly changed.

“You feel kind of helpless because there’s nothing you can do because everyone’s stuck at home,” said Courtney Troyan of Riverhead, a Stony Brook University senior. “There’s really nothing you can do. This is just the world now, so it’s kind of just a matter of waiting till this is all over.”

Emily Sands of Orient, a University of Pennsylvania senior, turned in her last assignment on Sunday. Her formal schooling has ended.

“We’ve been kind of dealing with the fact that we lost our senior spring,” she said. “It’s the end of college. We don’t really get that kind of closure.”

Austin Fitzpatrick of Aquebogue, a New York Institute of Technology senior, said the biggest surprise was how suddenly the world changed. “One day we were practicing and everything was fine,” said Mr. Fitzpatrick, captain of the men’s lacrosse team. “We were supposed to play a game on a Wednesday and then, that night the game was canceled and school was all over. There was no leading into it, it was kind of just right away. It was like 48 hours, everything completely changed.”

And what about college commencement ceremonies? Schools have been trying to iron that out in their own ways.

Ms. Troyan will not be standing in Stony Brook’s Kenneth P. LaValle Stadium for her graduation ceremony. Instead, she will watch a virtual ceremony live streamed on the college’s website May 22. “We all look forward to graduation because that’s a big thing everyone looks forward to,” she said. “That’s just a big landmark in my life.”

“It’s a different sort of emotion because it’s not like the closure that you would typically get from a graduation, like standing in the stadium of Stony Brook with all of your friends around you,” she continued. “You’re not getting that any more. You’re by yourself, so it’s like an absence of the closure that I would have gotten, but I’m grateful that we’re doing at least something.”

Katelyn Zaneski of Aquebogue, an Adelphi University senior, said her graduation ceremony, which had been scheduled to be held at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum, has been canceled, and she hasn’t heard anything else about the matter. “It’s definitely extremely upsetting because we worked four years to be able to graduate college and then our last semester is pretty much taken away,” she said, adding, “It would be super neat, just to have our name said out loud and just [be] recognized for all of our accomplishments.”

Ms. Sands said Pennsylvania will have a virtual ceremony May 17 for its College of Arts and Sciences and then another for the entire university May 18. The university president said an in-person ceremony will be held when it is safe and feasible, according to Ms. Sands.

“There’s nothing we really can do right now except make the best of it,” she said. “With everything going on, this is probably the only way that it’s possible to have a graduation ceremony on the day, so I guess it makes sense.”

A bigger concern for graduating seniors may be the job market.

“With the market the way it is right now, jobs are a little bit scarce,” said Mr. Fitzpatrick.

Mr. Fitzpatrick, a finance major, said he may return to NYIT in the fall to pursue a master’s degree and complete his lacrosse career with the additional season the NCAA granted spring sports athletes. “I didn’t plan for this at all, so I pretty much have to roll with it,” he said.

Similarly, Ms. Zaneski wants to return to Adelphi to pursue a master’s degree in exercise science, delaying her entry into the workforce.

“I think that it’s very eye-opening because a lot of occupations and jobs, it shows which ones are going to really be there through everything,” she said. “So it’s cool that I chose the medical field because in a situation like this it shows that I’m always going to have jobs available in the future, so it’s a good field to be going into.”

Ms. Troyan, a sociology major, is in on a pre-law track and leaning toward attending Tauro Law School in Central Islip to study real estate law. That would delay her entry into the professional field. “I definitely look at that as a positive because I get to prepare myself, make more connections, meet more people, network more,” she said.

Figurniak and Dan Fedun of Mattituck are both seniors majoring in criminal justice at Roger Williams University. Mr. Figurniak said a career in law enforcement brings a degree of job security. “I know that they’re always going to be needed, so I think, it’s a pretty relatively safe job,” he said.

“Going into this job market, it’s really not the best, as people already know,” Mr. Fedun said. “Twenty-four hours a day they’re always working, nurses, law enforcement.”

Ms. Sands, who played soccer for Pennsylvania, is seeking a career as a professional player in Europe, but given the pandemic, she’s not sure how that will pan out. “Definitely kind of just in a holding pattern right now,” she said.

Reflecting on her college career, Ms. Sands said: “I loved mostly every minute of it. There were one or two semesters that I took some hard classes that were pretty hard, but I definitely made some lifelong friends and grew a lot from the last four years, so I don’t think I’d change anything — except for maybe this semester.”