If I don't convocate, do I still graduate? A letter to the Class of 2020

If you look closely, it looks like I'm at SFU! This taken after my family surprised me with a "grad ceremony".

COVID-19 came at a unique time. This is not to say that there was a better time for it to show up — it would've been best if it hadn't shown up at all. But since this is our new reality, I took some time to think about it. In particular, I started thinking about COVID-19 and how it stole a rite of passage from so many of us. Further, this led me to reflect on what this says about us and what we value.

It took me six years to get to this point. If you told me back in Fall 2014 (when I first started my degree) that it would take me six years, I would've scoffed. How hard could it be? But as many of us can understand, it's not just a matter of difficulty. There were logistics, class availabilities, and other opportunities. Not to mention there were large chunks of time where I had no idea what I wanted and where I was going.

Despite the uncertainty, I trained my eyes on one immovable fact. Like so many before me, I too would one day walk the stage. In the span of 10 seconds, I would slip from anonymity to subtle recognition back into anonymity. But those 10 seconds of handshakes and smiles would be the culmination of years of hard work. This was for certain. How long it would take me to get there was a mystery.

Unfortunately, no one could have seen this pandemic coming. I would have never guessed that I would be writing this with the knowledge that I won't be crossing the stage in June.

The funny thing is, I actually could have avoided this all together. I finished my degree in Fall 2018 and could convocate as part of the class of 2019. But I started to shift my focus beyond the ceremonial and looked to the practical. What would I do with my life now if I graduated? If you're reading this as a fellow graduate, you may find yourself asking that exact question. For me, the answer was to pump the breaks and apply for the honours program. To be clear, this was something I didn't need to do, but something I did as a way to buy me some time.

I knew that convocation would still be waiting for me, once I finished my honours thesis.

In the middle of March 2020, I started to question the fidelity of convocation. Here in Vancouver, things started to shut down as I wrapped up my research interviews. The fears of health care professionals were coming to fruition. This turned our world upside down.

Convocation was still 3 months away, I told myself. Things can turn around.

But as months passed, people had to make hard decisions. Soon, many of us received the news that we wouldn't convocate in person.

I remember exactly where I was when I read that simple fact. I was in my room, using my dresser as a standing desk. I just finished a long Zoom meeting with my work team and felt overwhelmed at the uncertainty of it all. And then, I read the email that stripped me of the 10 seconds I had idolized from the moment I started my degree.

My heart broke.

I've had my heart broken a few times in my life. But this time, my heart broke in such a way that I'd never felt before.

I encountered many emotions that night — regret, frustration, sadness, anger. But as night turned to day, one emotion emerged victorious: gratitude.

The absence of a ceremony doesn't negate the years of hard work. Every checkpoint during your degree, every success and failure, all this is part of your journey. You are where you are now because of your work and determination.

We tend to see a convocation ceremony and the regalia and fanfare as not only a rite of passage but a right of passage. To wear the cap and gown, walk across the stage and fill our phones with photos are part of a "universal experience", a right even. It's seen as something the universe owes us based on the tears shed or hours unslept.

To be clear, I'm not putting down the beauty of this ceremony. As I write this, there is still a part of me that is heartbroken at the fact that I will not be crossing the stage on June 12, 2020. But I want to point to how much weight we put on a single day in the grand scheme of our educational experience. By not crossing that threshold, does that mean that I'm not a graduate? No. The experience, while beautiful, does not take away from the fact that you have made it here and that you have succeeded at something challenging. For that, I congratulate you! It certainly hasn't been an easy road.

For me, my time in university was marked with many highs and beautiful academic relationships and friendships. But there have also been moments of exceptional darkness. There was a period of time where I thought that I wouldn't be able to make it because my anxiety and depression had taken me on the detour of a lifetime. Throughout this time, I've learned more about myself than any other discipline, what I value, and what ignites my passions. And I firmly believe that these years of delayed gratification and taking it slow have in many ways prepared me for the fact that I wouldn't convocate with my peers in person.

It sucks, but it's okay. We carry on. We move forward.

I've come to see that "certain" things — as in, things we think of as secure or certain — may not be so certain after all. Convocation is a classic example. But when we take away this kind of security, what are we left with? In other words, where have you put your validation, self-worth, and identity?

If I'm being extra honest, I saw convocation as an opportunity to validate my own experiences. There isn't anything wrong with this. But I hope that in the absence of this, you see that there is so much more to your self-worth. You have worked hard to get to where you are now, and I don't dispute that. You deserve to get the recognition you've earned, and I won't take that away from you. But beyond convocation, where else can you find that recognition and validation?

I'd like to offer three suggestions:

1. Think back on your most difficult moments. Not to drum up anxiety or bad memories, but to see your growth from it. It could be a tough paper or a bombed exam or being on academic probation. You may have wondered at the time how you could possibly get past this. And yet, here you are now. You made it, and you should be proud of it. If you ever feel lost or in despair in the future, think back to this moment and how you've grown from it.

2. Reflect on who you were when you started. School changes people, hopefully for the better. I can guarantee that at this point, you are a different person from who you were when you started. The change that came about is character development. You've learned more about the world, shaped your identity, and forged a unique path. It doesn't get any better than that. I encourage you to look to the future with the joy of knowing that you've changed. You might not have been ready to enter the world then, but you are ready now.

3. Thank those who've helped you and supported you. Though I am the protagonist in my own story and degree, I know that I couldn't have done it alone. There were friends made in class and families that supported us every step of the way. There were professors who sharpened our minds and staff who answered our questions. Who have been the inspirations in your own journey? What might your experience have been like if you hadn't met them? Take time to think of these people and their impact on your life. If you feel bold, reach out to tell them about their impact.

At the end of it all, it sucks that COVID-19 has cancelled such an important event. But I hope that in its absence you can still come to appreciate your growth and who you have become. You're on your way to do extraordinary things, and you'll have the resilience from this experience to draw from.

I also wanted to take a moment to recognize school administrations of all levels who have had to make these difficult decisions for the good of all students. As much as these are moments for us as graduates, these are also moments for you to celebrate with us and to see the legacy of your hard work. Thank you for making the hard decisions, for keeping us informed, and for finding creative ways to help us celebrate in a safe manner.

Congratulations, Class of 2020!