Through all their years of schooling, no homework assignment or classroom project or 10-page paper prepared members of the Class of 2020 for this. A global pandemic has upended rituals typically associated with the end of high school — including commencement ceremonies — and has left a murky future in its wake.
While we can empathize with frustrated students and parents who have been anticipating the rite of passage that is graduation, we also can point out something to be learned: The future is not guaranteed; create the one you desire while preparing for the unexpected. As former President Barack Obama said Saturday during an online ceremony for this year’s high school graduates, “When everything’s up for grabs, this is your generation’s world to shape.”
Local school districts have formulated tentative plans for recognizing graduates, ranging from virtual ceremonies to drive-by diploma pickups to in-person fetes scheduled for late summer.
Vancouver Public Schools, for example, is holding out hope for in-person ceremonies in August, depending on social-distancing guidelines at the time. Evergreen Public Schools will host a series of virtual graduations in June, with plans for in-person events later. As Superintendent Mike Merlino wrote to district families: “I know this is not how you imagined finishing your senior year. I want you to know we are doing everything we can to make this milestone special for you.”
Either way, members of the Class of 2020 will have a unique commencement experience. It certainly is not the one they expected, and likely is not the one they desired, but it will be memorable in its own way. As Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai said: “The class of 2020 won’t be defined by what we lost to this virus but by how we responded to it. The world is yours now and I can’t wait to see what you make of it.”
Or, as basketball star LeBron James advised: “Class of 2020, I know the last thing you want to hear right now is ‘stay home.’ That’s not my message to you. My message is, stay close to home. Maybe not physically but in every other way possible. Pursue every ambition, go as far as you can possibly dream and be the first generation to embrace a new responsibility, a responsibility to rebuild your community. … You will determine how we rebuild, and I ask that you make your community your priority.”
For some graduates, that will include entering the workforce, putting to use the lessons they have learned. For others, it will mean higher education, building upon the foundation they have constructed during their secondary schooling.
In any case, the graduates of 2020 are facing uncertainty, with an unpredictable job market and with the prospect of on-campus learning doubtful by this fall. But the encouragement offered to previous graduating classes still rings true: You have been well-prepared to move into the world and make a difference, to build a life for yourself and to help others.
You will have successes as well as failures. Do not grow comfortable with either one; they are not permanent.
The coronavirus will alter the future in ways small and large, both predictable and unforeseen. While commencement exercises represent one glaring alteration, they will not be the last change experienced by the Class of 2020. For new graduates — and older ones — our ability to embrace those changes and adjust to them will determine the strength of our nation and the prosperity of our future.