Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 August 2020

The novelty of graduating in the class of 2020

The coronavirus pandemic put a spoke in the wheels of an important rite of passage world over: graduation ceremonies

The class of 2020 did not have a typical graduating ceremony but went through the novelty of a virtual rite of passage. Alamy
The class of 2020 did not have a typical graduating ceremony but went through the novelty of a virtual rite of passage. Alamy

Last year's graduating pupils, the class of 2019, had a very different farewell ceremony to their juniors leaving school this month. 'Leavers' Day' is the last day of school for countless batches of teenagers across the world as they enter college, take a gap year or join the adult world of employment.

In the British School Al Khubairat (BSAK) in Abu Dhabi, it is the norm on Leavers' Day that a conspiratorial group of year-13 pupils busy themselves in a series of harmless pranks that they spend weeks planning – removing clocks from classrooms and placing them in the school foyer under a banner that reads: “where has all the time gone?”, wrapping clingfilm around indulgent teachers' arms, replacing the water in water coolers with orange juice, and so on.

As the day comes to an end, the pranks subside and the proceedings take on a more meaningful note. Each graduating pupil takes a solo, ceremonial last walk down the school stairs.

At the foot of the staircase, a crowd of pupils, teachers and proud parents cheer and clap. That is how the graduating class of year-13s says goodbye.

Things this year are different. For the class of 2020, the 'coronavirus graduates', these rites have been immeasurably altered. Around the world, the coronavirus pandemic has forced schools, colleges and universities to rethink commencements, proms and graduation ceremonies.

In the US, at the University of Michigan, May 2 was to be a day of caps and gowns and rousing speeches. However, back on March 13, a decision was taken to postpone the event with no future date specified. Since then, at least 88 other US colleges have either pulled the plug, delayed or are planning virtual ceremonies.

We might ask, what is all the fuss about? The pupils will still get their certificates and graduate.

A sense of belonging and of being valued by our institutions and societies is especially crucial at a time when our psychological well-being is threatened

Ceremonies, however, are about so much more. They carry immense psychological importance. They bring people together to mark milestones.

They can reflect our cultures, traditions, speak of who we are and where we fit. They are in fact an expression of social identity and collective belonging.

I still remember my old school song. I have a strange sense of loyalty and connection to my undergraduate college, my alma mater.

The ceremonies that took place at these institutions cemented years of memories.

A graduation ceremony is a rite of passage, a transition from childhood to adulthood. It is a dramatisation of a major life event and is typically witnessed by an adoring audience.

The passage conveys us from one standing in life to another; from schoolboy to college man, from student to graduate. After this transformation, we begin to view ourselves differently. Similarly, from that point on, the way our families and society views us is radically changed.

A woman in graduation attire on an empty street on the University of Kansas campus Sunday, April 26. Charlie Riedel/ AP
A woman in graduation attire on an empty street on the University of Kansas campus Sunday, April 26. Charlie Riedel/ AP

Traditional rites of passage have included hunting, fasting, periods of solitude and the memorisation of sacred texts. All of which would be followed by celebrations, should the initiate successfully pass through. Modern societies, however, have lost many of these ceremonies.

Our school and college graduation events are among the remaining few.

In his article called Rediscovering Rites of Passage, University of Calgary’s David Lertzman, writes: “Without proper rites of passage, people can become disoriented and lose their way on life’s journey”.

During the pandemic, we must not lose sight of ceremony and celebration. These are as important for our psychological health as vitamins and minerals are for our physical health.

A sense of belonging and of being valued by our institutions and societies is especially crucial at a time when our psychological well-being is threatened.

The pandemic has caused millions of us to grieve for lost loved ones. Millions have been anxious about infections and finances. People feel the strain of restrictions on movement.

Despite these challenges, we should not forget the occasions that deserve to be commemorated as these can also help us get through tough times.

One of my daughters is in the BSAK class of 2020, a coronavirus graduate. Understandably, many of her classmates are upset that they could not bid farewell to school with their friends in the way they would have liked.

They did not get to perform pranks on Leavers' Day and they felt deprived of the final dramatic descent down the school stairs.

There is talk among them of hosting the event at a future date but many will head off to universities around the world, which makes the prospect of a future traditional farewell unlikely.

As a gesture of compensation though and to help the year-13s celebrate their accomplishments, schools have made a commendable digital effort.

In the case of my daughter's school, they created a project called the “wave” where each pupil from the class of 2020 submitted a brief video clip of themselves waving.

The school's creative team then stitched these several individual clips into one video and played it over the song In My Life by the Beatles.

It is a stand-in for celebration and ceremony but given the restrictions enforced by the coronavirus, it is an all the more beautiful gesture. The clip ends with a virtual walk down those school stairs.

Justin Thomas is a psychology professor at Zayed University

Updated: May 3, 2020 04:55 PM

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