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As first normal graduation in three years approaches, fourth years express gratitude for their time despite pandemic

Students lament missed study abroad and social opportunities, but remain prideful of the memories made

<p>For last year’s graduation ceremonies, degree conferral ceremonies occurred in Scott Stadium with a two guest maximum in order to adhere to gathering limits.</p>

For last year’s graduation ceremonies, degree conferral ceremonies occurred in Scott Stadium with a two guest maximum in order to adhere to gathering limits.

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With four full weeks of classes remaining before the Class of 2022 walks the Lawn, signifying the end of their time at the University, fourth-year students reflect with pride on all they have accomplished. Still, members of the Class of 2022 can’t help but note the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic limited in-person social interactions and community building for the majority of their college lives.

The Class of 2022 is the only class currently at the University that has experienced a full year without COVID-19 restrictions, before the pandemic forced the University to move classes online in March 2020. The first COVID-19 public health guidelines came just weeks before the Class of 2020 was set to graduate, with a modified in-person ceremony offered to those in the Class of 2020 a week before a similarly modified ceremony for the Class of 2021 last year.

For last year’s Final Exercises, degree conferral ceremonies occurred in Scott Stadium in order to adhere to gathering limits. Graduates were allowed only two guests, who were unable to watch graduates proceed down the lawn. This year, Final Exercises will take place normally, for the first time since spring 2019.   

Fourth-year Batten student Audrey Hirshberg is excited for Final Exercises, but feels that the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted some key aspects of her college experience. 

“I didn't have a chance to study abroad, and I spent the semester I should've been abroad living at home and taking two classes while working part time to get additional experience in a job related to my future career,” Hirshberg said. “I tried to make the most out of the flexibility COVID afforded to me within online classes, but I definitely missed some of the social aspects you expect from college due to the pandemic.”

Fourth-year Engineering student Jack Wiler agreed that the pandemic disrupted his college experience, though he noted that many classes in his department already had virtual options, meaning that the academic situation changed little for him.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic did disrupt Wiler’s social life, which he said worsened his overall University experience. All of Wiler’s most cherished college memories are social — whether as a first-year when the men’s basketball team won a national championship or as a second-year when Virginia Football beat Virginia Tech.

“So as far as my education, it didn't really change a lot to be honest,” WIler said. “But socially, I mean, I'm a pretty social guy and I think it hurt my academics in that everything sucked.”

Having expressed remorse for missed social opportunities, Wiler said he still feels as if he was able to complete “85 percent” of the traditional college experience, and said he is thankful for the time he was able to spend with his friends and members of student organizations. Particularly meaningful to Wiler are the friends he made in the Whethermen, the University’s oldest improv comedy group.

“I would still say that I ended up being able to sort of experience everything that you can really hope to experience in college — the sort of idea of the college experience,” Wiler said.

Hirshberg also felt that she was able to make the most of her time at the University, especially within the last year when in-person student life returned to Grounds — vaccinated students, faculty and staff returned to normal in-person learning this spring, and masking requirements have been steadily lifted as the semester progresses. 

“I think I'll miss the culture and community of the University the most,” Hirshberg said. “Never again in my life will I live within walking distance of all of my best friends and have the opportunity to live, learn, and have fun with them on a daily basis.”

Fourth-year College student Julia Paraiso expressed gratitude for the opportunity to have a fully normal first year, citing the importance of establishing relationships and a sense of community before students were sent home.

“So we already had a basis of community and this foundation that we could feel comfortable with,” Paraiso said. “We knew that we had friends and this group to come back to and check in with during the pandemic.” 

The disruption of the pandemic also affected local hotels and businesses, including Graduate Charlottesville, a hotel on the Corner that saw its bookings fall during the pandemic. However, with normal Final Exercises on tap, bookings are increasing and Final Exercise rushes seem to be returning to normal.

“Graduate Charlottesville is nearly sold out for graduation weekend, and overall we’re seeing occupancy returning to pre-pandemic levels,” general manager Gillian Clark said. “We’re honored to serve as a home base for students and their families during such a special part of the U.Va. experience. We’re looking forward to celebrating alongside the Class of 2022.”

With Final Exercises festivities rapidly approaching, some students reflected on how short their time was here at the University, especially in light of the pandemic. Fourth-year Batten student Logan Botts is studying within a “three and one” program whereby a student graduates with an undergraduate degree and remains at the University for an extra year to earn a graduate degree. 

Botts said that having now completed four full years at the University, she reflects on her time with pride.

“I definitely feel I have a greater sense of excitement about this year and really being able to graduate in the same ceremony as many of my closest friends,” Botts said. “And as I get closer and closer to the end, I think I'm starting to realize the magnitude of what I've accomplished in these four years, and it's really nice to take that time to reflect on that as well.”

Paraiso reflected on her time at the University with gratitude yet frustration, and discussed exasperation over a lack of distinction between students and administrators in handling the pandemic that defined her final three years at the University.

Paraiso was specifically disappointed in the University for allowing the Inter-Fraternity Council and Inter-Sorority Council executive committees to make decisions regarding whether or not rush events should be virtual this year. University leadership encouraged ISC and IFC leadership to move rush events — which typically bring together hundreds of students in close quarters for one to two weeks — online, but did not require it. Ultimately, the IFC opted to hold recruitment entirely online, while the ISC permitted chapters to host the final round of recruitment and bid day in-person.

“Just relying so heavily on third and fourth-fears to make these sweeping decisions on how to keep hundreds of students safe —  I think that was just the completely incorrect reaction,” Paraiso said.

In spite of missed opportunities brought on by the pandemic, students couldn’t help but think to all graduation represents. 

“Graduation represents the culmination of all the hard work that I put in over the past four years, but also the support that I’ve gotten from a lot of people around me be that family, friends, faculty — so I’m definitely really excited for it,” Botts said.

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