What it’s like to graduate from UAA during a global pandemic

University of Alaska Anchorage seniors Alex Jorgensen and Clare Baldwin recently recorded their commencement speech in front of a camera at UAA to be posted online for the virutal celebration on May 3. An in-person ceremony is postponed indefinitely due to the coronavirus. Jorgensen and Baldwin are also dating, and hunkering down together. (Photo courtesy Alex Jorgensen)

If University of Alaska Anchorage senior Alex Jorgensen had to pick one word to describe what it’s like to graduate during a global pandemic, he’d say, “anticlimactic.”

“This is a big milestone in my life. I worked really hard for the past five years to earn this degree,” said Jorgensen, who’s graduating with his bachelor’s in political science.

“And now, it’s just, there’s no ending point,” he said. “It just slowly diffuses into the rest of the 60 years of my adult life. There’s no transition.”

Jorgensen is one of more than 1,000 students graduating from UAA this weekend. But the graduates won’t mark the milestone in the usual way. There won’t be caps or gowns. And walking across the stage to get a diploma? Not going to happen.

UAA has indefinitely postponed its in-person commencement ceremony as the coronavirus pandemic continues. For now, the university is opting for a more socially-distant way to celebrate the Class of 2020: It’s launching a website on graduation day with video tributes and speeches.

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Jorgensen and other upcoming graduates say they understand it’s what has to be done, and appreciate the online celebration. But, some say, it still kind of stings. They had looked forward to a big graduation day ceremony to cap off their years of work — to hug, high-five and shake hands with their classmates and professors.

Virginia Groeschel is graduating with her master’s degree in project management. (Photo courtesy Virginia Groeschel)

“It’s tough. Definitely tough,” said Virginia Groeschel, who’s graduating with her master’s degree in project management. “It’s emotional for sure. If I start talking too much, I might start crying.”

Like college students across Alaska, and the entire country, Groeschel’s on-campus life ended abruptly when the coronavirus took hold in March. UAA moved classes online, closed dorms and canceled events. Most students didn’t return to campus after spring break.

“It’s sad not to have those last moments,” said senior Clare Baldwin.

Related: Hundreds of UAA students quickly move out of dorms, while some prepare to hunker down on campus

Baldwin is graduating with her bachelor’s degree in economics. She, Jorgensen and Groeschel were all selected to speak at the commencement ceremony.

But, instead of talking to a crowd of students, they recently pre-recorded their speeches to be posted online. Baldwin and Jorgensen spoke in front of a camera, in a largely empty room, at UAA.

Groeschel read her speech from a desk at home, during an online Zoom meeting with a university employee, as her husband and son stayed quiet in another room. She also defended her thesis on Zoom. Just a few months ago, Groeschel said, she and her classmates had expected these final weeks of college to look so different.

“We were talking about buying gowns, what sort of regalia we’re going to have,” she said. “I was going to have a party. I was inviting everybody.”

Nataliya Udovyk is graduating with her bachelor’s in mechanical engineering. She also has a bachelor’s in economics from UAA. (Photo courtesy Nataliya Udovyk)

Nataliya Udovyk, who’s graduating with her bachelor’s in mechanical engineering, said there are many people from UAA she wishes she could thank in person.

“I still can call them, you know, and post stuff on Facebook,” she said. “But getting them all together to celebrate with me is something different, I think the virtual aspect of it, the virtual aspect of hugs and smiles… it doesn’t feel the same.”

Udovyk works for BP, and is transferring with the oil and gas company to Germany soon. She says she’ll celebrate her new degree in a video call with her department.

“Making the best out of the situation,” she said.

Other students say they plan to celebrate on calls with friends and family, or have tiny parties with those they live with. Veronica Smith, a business administration major, said she borrowed a friend’s old cap and gown so she can take photos.

Veronica Smith, a business administration major, is one of more than 1,000 students graduating from UAA this spring. (Photo courtesy Veronica Smith)

“I’m gonna be wearing my cords and all that stuff, pretending like I had an actual ceremony,” she said.

Related: Read more coronavirus coverage from Alaska Public Media.

Willie Moody is stationed with the Air Force at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. He’s graduating with a master’s degree in global supply chain management this weekend. He says he and his wife will eventually celebrate with a trip to Valdez.

Willie Moody is graduating with a master’s degree in global supply chain management. (Photo courtesy Willie Moody)

“Although it might feel a little bit anticlimactic, you know, it will still be a moment where a lot of people will be celebrating in their own way,” he said. “And you’re going to see, I’m sure, a huge uptick in social media and people posting their, ‘Hey, I’m finally done!’”

Graduation ceremony aside, there’s another looming step ahead for many new graduates: The job search. Jorgensen said it’s tough with so many hiring freezes and layoffs.

“We’re graduating from college, this is the point in our lives we’re supposed to be, you know, establishing ourselves in the professional world and trying to find a new track for where we want to go in life,” he said.

“But yet, we’re trying to do this in a period of a pandemic, in a period where we’ve seen crazy high levels of unemployment.”

Reach reporter Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@alaskapublic.org or 907-550-8447.

a portrait of a woman outside

Tegan Hanlon is the digital managing editor at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at thanlon@alaskapublic.org or 907-550-8447. Read more about Tegan here.

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