Grateful Powerpoint Grad
PSU's decision to cancel in-person ceremonies was the right one

A colorful illustration of a student wearing their graduation cap while brushing their teeth in the mirror at home.

On June 14th, I will be graduating—virtually. By that I mean I am having a virtual graduation ceremony from my living room to commemorate my very real graduation from Portland State University. Is this the beautiful and triumphant finish to our academic careers we all hoped for? Hell no. However, an immediate virtual commencement at the end of the school year is the best way for all of us to be able to acknowledge the hard work and sacrifices we’ve made and to celebrate our immense achievements together.

When PSU announced that commencement would be virtual on the 26th of March it seemed like an extra safe move. But the backlash by students was swift and ferocious. Comments and petitions decried the move as robbing students of their rightfully earned moment. Postpone graduation until fall, they say. Let 2020 walk with 2021, they say. This is unfair, they say. But the safety of the fall—or even 2021 for that matter—is up for debate at this point. 

There are many better things to direct your anger toward: attempts to privatize the USPS; the staggering number of unnecessary COVID-19 deaths in the United States due to the arrogant dismissal of science by the ignorant, arrogant blowhards currently running our country; 17% of the Amazon Rainforest is gone and in 2016 30% of coral in the Great Barrier Reef died; et cetera ad infinitum. 

Be furious. Be mad. Be sad. Let it out. Take it out on the person most responsible for us not having the possibility of reopening like South Korea: Donald Trump. Vote for the Democrat in November and get him out. 

Did you fire the Pandemic Response Team? No, you did not. If they hadn’t been fired perhaps we wouldn’t be entering into an insanely uncertain job market. Demand that your student debt be erased. Are you unsure how you can possibly afford to survive after college? Demand the absurd wealth of Bezos and friends be redistributed; that our country increase taxes on the ultra-rich and fairly compensate the working classes. Use your anger and energy to demand that the U.S. be transformed, immediately, into a just and equitable country that is not only concerned about, but actively prioritizes, the health and financial stability of every single person in our country.

At the start of March, flights were getting really cheap. My 95-year-old grandma told me that it didn’t matter how cheap the flights were. “Don’t come,” she said. “I’m 95. You could literally kill me, honey.”

Unfortunately, we can’t see the end of the COVID-19 crisis. It would be absolutely irresponsible to hold in-person commencement ceremonies. I don’t want our parents and grandparents to have to think that if they love and support us they’ll be there for us, even if it means risking their lives or the lives of one of our immunocompromised students or siblings. COVID-19 isn’t going away any time soon. If anything, it will likely get much worse. 

illustrations by Kami Gould

Graduation is meant to be celebrated with friends and family who have supported us along this journey, correct? To quote The Head and The Heart, “My family lives in a different state.” Fortunately, my family could drive here, but what about the families who would have to fly? That mass movement and mass gathering would likely mean an uptick in cases and deaths—regardless if it happens now or later. Additionally, it is likely that postponement to a different date would coincide with dates chosen by other universities and colleges: lots of people moving around the country and globe at the same time. It’s not just our school, it’s schools around the country. We are setting a good example and making a tiny sacrifice in exchange for the health of ourselves and those we love. We are doing our part to give a slight reprieve to healthcare workers fighting the spread and wrath of COVID-19 while honoring those who have died from it. I applaud PSU for making this difficult choice; and for making it early, killing our hopes while we still have time to recover from the blow.

Graduation is a climax after the momentum of effort we’ve put in over all these years to make it to this point. It is the brief moment of relief after years of stress, where, just for a second, we can breathe and bask in the glorious achievements of our peers—and ourselves (it’s our day, we get to be selfish!)—before we part ways and head off into the next phases of our lives. Part of the reason why that moment is so big is because it’s finally here after years of thinking it might never arrive, and for one last second we are all on the same page, it is the last moment of college before we head off into the “real world.” Dressing up funny and taking pictures with our families is a side benefit. It’s because that is the first real moment that students and those who support them get to acknowledge their accomplishments. When that moment comes, if we don’t celebrate it, it will be gone.

Are we just going to go around telling people not to get excited for us yet? When our parents and friends ask if we graduated are we just going to tell them to shut their dirty traps? Are we going to wait to get our degrees or will we have them with us in the meantime? What about the number of out-of-state and international students who might not have the means to get back to Portland later? 

What makes graduation special is the culmination of all of it, in a room where thousands of other people are likewise excited, nervous, relieved, and stoked beyond belief to have made it to that pivotal, celebratory, and transitional moment in their lives. 

Postponement ignores what graduation is: an important experience because of the specific moment it happens within. It is the instant immediately after we’ve all survived the rigors of academia, the precise moment before students move out of dorms, and the exact second when we’re all standing on the edge of the diving board debating to ourselves and each other whether we’re going to be able to perform miracle-necessitating tricks or just casually allow ourselves to glide into the job market.

When we postpone the ceremony we move past the very moment that makes it so special and important to begin with. No matter what we try, we cannot recapture it. Moments are like fireflies: if you try to keep them in a jar for later they will probably die. 

I’m proud to partake in this highly unusual ceremony. I didn’t take Uber up on their offer for a free degree from Arizona State University’s online programs for a reason; I wanted the community, in-person experience, and quality education PSU offered. I’m proud to help save lives by celebrating in my living room. I’m proud that at 33, a literal decade since my departure from community college, I will have a degree—something I hadn’t thought possible from 2004 to 2015. My degree still represents the hard work I’ve put in over the past four years to finish my Junior and Senior years of college. I’m proud I’ve made it here; and I’m proud we’ve all made it here together. 

For the past five years I’ve been looking forward to this moment. I’ve dreamt about the electric atmosphere. The banality and anonymity of a terrifyingly long graduation day, sitting in a chair for too many hours, while I watch students I’ve never seen before be celebrated. For the first time since my high school graduation, it was finally going to be me in that robe and cap. All of the absurdly difficult, yet at times unbelievably fulfilling, work and just one, two, 100 all-nighters later I would be the one who crosses the stage and holds my empty diploma sleeve in the air as proof that I, too, am capable of graduating from college. I, too, would have a degree that might not make me a ton of money but that has taught me important skills and that I am unbelievably proud of. Beaming at the cameras. Picking my parents out of the crowd as they pick me out of the crowd and we wave. Finally, that was going to be me! 

But that’s not how it’s going to happen. I’m going to put on my nice black jeans and fancy shoes. I’m going to put on my robe and decorated hat. I’m going to play fun music and drink some Coca-Cola and munch on fruit snacks and celery sticks. I’m going to set up my virtual commencement. I’m going to get on video conference calls with my family and friends who are also graduating. I’m gonna cheer for every person and we’re all gonna fuckin’ party over the internet, together.

Written By
More from Jake Johnson
Tiger King for a Day
Hypocrisy, complicity, and desperation
Toward the end of March you could hardly go anywhere without encountering...
Read More
Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.