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A second chance to dress for graduation

A real graduation ceremony this year gives me the opportunity to look forward, not backward

<p>My college graduation cap looks nothing like the one I would have made as a high school senior — it represents who I am now. &nbsp;</p>

My college graduation cap looks nothing like the one I would have made as a high school senior — it represents who I am now.  

Before taking my University graduation photos, I spent hours designing the perfect graduation cap and picking the perfect dress. Some students may view these items as nothing more than graduation attire — for me, they represent a decision to let go of my lingering grief over the cancelation of my high school graduation. Through these items, I have learned to see my college graduation not as a way to make up for the past but as an event worth celebrating on its own.

I am not ashamed of being a 2020 graduate who never totally got over my graduation being canceled. I loved high school, and I could not imagine life outside of it. I never really felt ready to graduate, and once the pandemic hit, it became clear that I might not walk the stage at all. I realized I was about to lose the graduation that I had spent 12 years anticipating, and I worried that I might never close that chapter of my life.

I wrote angsty teenage poetry comparing graduation to a kind of death, and I moped around my neighborhood like a ghost during the times when I would have been in class. Earlier in the year, I had imagined myself graduating in a white mini dress with puffy sleeves, and I spent hours on Pinterest finding the dresses that fit my vision.

But when I took high school graduation pictures with my friends, I donned a long black dress. It was fitting for a funeral, and I treated my high school graduation as such. More than missing out on the recognition of my hard work in high school, I was mourning the loss of the chance to celebrate with the people I loved. If nothing else, that anecdote shows just how melodramatic and depressed I was as a high school senior.

I also wanted to design my own graduation cap. I had envisioned writing a meaningful quote from a book and surrounding it with painted flowers. However, something about the boredom of quarantine and my heartbreaking, anticlimactic graduation from high school made it impossible for me to make something pretty for myself. The cap designs I made as a high school senior never made it out of my Canva drafts, and I ended up wearing a plain black cap. 

Most of the feelings about the loss of my high school graduation resurfaced as I entered my fourth year. When the realization hit that my college graduation was actually happening, I felt pressured to make 2024 a makeup for 2020. I felt like I had to graduate for two separate versions of myself and erase the bad memories of the pandemic. 

However, watching my fellow fourth-years celebrate the end of college helped me see graduation in a new light. My friends were looking forward to celebrating the end of an era and starting on new paths. They were not ruminating on the past, and I wanted to approach graduation with the same excitement. 

I realized that this spring, I am not making up for something that was lost — rather, I am getting another chance to celebrate my accomplishments with my friends. I began to look forward to college graduation as its own event opening a door to new opportunities.

With this new perspective, the first thing I did was design a graduation cap. It looks nothing like the one I would have made as a high school senior — it represents who I am now. I created a collage of patterned paper and magazine cut outs, with far fewer flowers than I would’ve had on my high school cap.

The next thing on my graduation checklist was acquiring a dress. It had to be short, it had to be stylish and, most critically, it had to be white. With a black dress, I had felt like a mourner. With a white dress, I would feel ready to celebrate my accomplishments and enter an exciting new phase of my life. This year, my dress is slightly off-white linen with billowy sleeves and a square neckline. It is mature and elegant, and wearing it makes me feel like I am graduating college and going out into the world.

So, with a cap and dress secured, I am ready to face my first official graduation ceremony. Some things are not all that different between 2020 and now. I still feel the same pangs of sadness when I think about leaving school and moving on to a new stage of my life. However, when I walk the Lawn later this week, it will be with excitement and hope for the future. I will be walking into the future in a way that I would not have — or could not have — four years ago.

Designing my graduation cap and picking out my dress was not simply about recreating the exact things that my 17-year-old self would have wanted. Replicating those feelings would feel dishonest to the person I have become over my four years in college. I want to honor the things that I never got the chance to do but in a way that is true to the person I am now. It feels like I finally have the chance to celebrate four years of hard work surrounded by the people I love. 

JULIANNE SAUNDERS is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at


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