For graduates, it’s been tough. It’s been ‘weird.’ But it’s been ‘wonderful.’

Editor’s note: This year, several contributors to The Citizen have been upper-level JMU students, who will graduate Friday as part of the class of 2021. They have weathered more than a year of social distancing, online classes and the constant threat of getting sick. So, we asked them to reflect on what it was like to finish college under the pandemic’s cloud, how they’ve been challenged, in what ways this has changed them and what they’re thinking about as they prepare to walk across the stage. 

Jessica Kronzer

In March, Rachael Berry, a longtime friend of mine from my freshman-year residence hall, Hillside Hall, screeched with me in the hallway of our apartment. Our feet bounced against the hardwood floor and for a moment, two grown women looked and sounded like little girls at their favorite boy band’s concert. We were graduating in-person, and our families would be able to watch us receive our degrees. In a year that felt like an earth-shattering disaster, it was a monumental moment of joy, celebration and happiness. 

There were some “catches” to this good news. Seniors can bring four guests, which works out for my family as I hoped to invite my two sisters and parents—but likely made things awkward for some families. And, for the first time, a JMU graduation will require “proper physical distancing” in place of warm hugs. 

My senior year wasn’t what I imagined. There were no tailgates, Spring Break trips with my friends or sorority senior brunches to commemorate the end of my undergraduate career. Most significant, my Spring Semester classes were entirely virtual with no class meeting on campus. I miss the normalcy of studying, eating and enjoying JMU’s campus. 

It’d be a mistake to say that I’m constantly mourning those lost experiences. Like many seniors, I’m instead treasuring the experiences that I did have this year. Long walks during every season at JMU’s Edith J. Carrier Arboretum with my boyfriend. Hikes with my roommates throughout the Valley. Visiting Bridgewater Coffee Co. one too many times with my sister because, sometimes, online students need to escape our apartments. Instead of fantasizing about what could have been, I’m choosing to memorialize my last year of college. I’m grateful to be ending that collage of memories by walking across the stage in Bridgeforth Stadium to receive my bachelor’s in Media Arts and Design with some of the most resilient students to every graduate from JMU. 

Katelyn Waltemyer

I’m grateful, thankful and in awe that this wonderful ride has come to an end. When I arrived at JMU, I wasn’t sure of myself. Every thought I had was accompanied by me overthinking or second-guessing it. Now, as I look back at that fragile young woman I once was, I can’t help but whisper: You did it.

College will challenge you. It will change you, and it will make you question everything. It’s a wonderful ride, but it’s also wild. I am who I am today because of the people I’ve met and experiences I’ve had at JMU. I am so blessed to have attended JMU, even if a pandemic turned everything upside down. 

Being a senior during COVID-19 has put so many things into perspective. The pandemic has brought many losses, but it has also allowed me to re-evaluate my priorities and lifestyle. I value small moments now more than I ever have because of the pandemic. It’s taught me that the little things, like going on walks around the neighborhood or getting lunch with a friend are so important.

I will always have admiration for my graduating class — here at JMU and across the world — for enduring the last year and a half of the college experience in this pandemic. We are stronger. We value the small moments. And we have perseverance. 

Looking back on this year, I can’t help but smile when I think about what my classmates and I have accomplished. At The Breeze — JMU’s student newspaper that I worked for — we printed throughout this hectic academic year, we continued to publish content online daily and we produced an award-winning election night show for Breeze TV. When the world was falling down, we worked hard and diligently to have and maintain one normalcy and that was The Breeze. 

Thank you to Brad Jenkins, The Breeze’s general manager, all of the School of Media Arts and Design professors who helped me throughout this hot mess of a year. Thank you to my wonderful coworkers at The Breeze, my family and friends. You all helped keep my world spinning this year. 

Even though I’m leaving soon to begin my next chapter, I will always call this place my home, not because of the beautiful bluestone on the Quad or the football games at Bridgeforth Stadium but because of all of the people I met here who have changed my life. 

This isn’t a goodbye, it’s a see you later.

Chase Downey

It’s been a weird year. As I moved through my undergraduate career, I experienced the excitement of the senior year for my peers and patiently waited for my turn. It was going to be the first year I’d be able to fully experience the nightlife of downtown Harrisonburg, the year I would get a chance to produce my own short film for a class, the year I would be able to have fun with my friends after completing four years of college. In February 2020, I signed a lease for the next year for a show house downtown, one of several houses that traditionally hosted small basement concerts with local and touring bands. A month later, the coronavirus plunged us into lockdown. As the pandemic stretched on and worry began setting in, I remember setting a note in my phone calendar for a day in October to ask my future self a simple question: “Did corona cancel fall 2020?” Of course, I never expected that the pandemic would last into my senior year. 

Adapting to the new social distancing and health guidelines didn’t affect me in the moment but looking back on the year now, I feel as if I’ve lost out on some of the recklessness of youth. I think back to spending all of my time at friends’ houses, going to others’ house shows or plays or recitals, meeting and talking with strangers on the street or on the quad, and seeing someone for the first time in weeks and, on a whim, deciding to get lunch or spend a day with them. I feel as if the pandemic forced us to grow up too soon. Instead of worrying about how little studying I might get done for a test, I was forced to worry about whether or not I could smell or taste every morning and ensuring I was completely isolated against everyone except for those I lived with. I stopped being excited for my senior year and my future because I had to worry about the present. Now, I feel as if it has slipped out of my fingertips. This year was miserably slow and all too fast all at the same time. It’s been a weird year. 

Isabela Gladston 

Graduating college amid a pandemic has made me realize a few things. One is that the job-hunting process is fiercely competitive. This is true without a pandemic, but members of the class of 2020 who weren’t able to find work last year and the thousands of people who were laid off have made the process that much more competitive. However, these circumstances are the reason I have worked 10 times harder to find a job over the past couple of months and have come to realize the need to network and connect with JMU alumni. Most importantly, I’m grateful for the little things we get to do every day like seeing our family, going to restaurants with friends and meeting new people in the most unusual places (like a CVS after receiving the second dose of the vaccine).

The New York Times published an essay last month defining the word “languishing.” The writer, an organizational psychologist, described it as a sense of “stagnation or emptiness” and wrote that many people felt this way throughout the pandemic. I think for a while, I was languishing when I began to dwell on the job market and economy, but then a spark went off in me when I began to appreciate everyday things. This spark, as the New York Times article called it, is the other side of languishing — flourishing. As I continue to navigate my way through life, I’m reminded that savoring the small stuff and being deeply grateful are just a few ways that can help anyone reach a sense of fulfillment and purpose. If the pandemic hadn’t happened, I would probably have measured my happiness with what job I had, if I was in a serious relationship or other metrics that don’t equate to individual fulfillment. So, while graduating during these trying times seemed scary at first, I have come out of JMU feeling more connected with the moments and people around me.

Journalism is changing, and that’s why The Citizen is here. We’re independent. We’re local. We pay our contributors, and the money you give goes directly to the reporting. No overhead. No printing costs. Just facts, stories and context. We’re also a proud member of the Virginia Press Association. Thanks for your support.

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