Last spring, universities across Canada cancelled in-person classes, rescheduled exams, and shuttered campuses. They promised convocation ceremonies would be held eventually, but as the COVID-19 pandemic continued, spring and summer ceremonies were postponed indefinitely.
For final-year students, the pandemic not only interrupted significant university milestones but set the tone for the entire year to come. Between endless lockdowns, stagnant job markets, and confusing financial aid, the class of 2020 says things still feel uncertain.
In interviews with The Pigeon, nine 2020 graduates from across Canada said they’ve grappled with similar feelings in the past year—feelings of loss, guilt, uncertainty, and, sometimes, hope. Here’s what they had to say.
Editor’s note: These responses have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
On missing important milestones
“It was not a great time to graduate. I was so looking forward to convocation—taking pictures with my friends, having a grad party, and celebrating this amazing journey that we had been through together. Instead, we were watching our names scroll in a [virtual] presentation. It was hard to take joy in that because it didn’t really feel [real].”
—Zeahaa Rehman, University of Toronto, 23
“I was graduating from university, my little brother graduated high school, and my little sister finished middle school. We were all graduating, and their little public schools did way more to make them feel like they’d achieved something than my university [did].
“I think that was something that I felt a little bitter about at the time. I felt like I was the last priority […] I think part of that is that, as a non-binary person, I knew the name on my diploma wasn’t going to be the name I go by because I hadn’t changed my legal name yet.
“It was like, ‘Great, so I don’t get to walk across the stage, and this piece of paper doesn’t mean anything to me because it doesn’t have my name on it.’”
—Jaime Sadgrove, Carleton University, 22
On competing in a faltering economy
“Constantly feeling like I have to scramble to always be doing job applications […] changed my timeline of wanting to go back to school. I actually did apply to graduate school in the fall, which I did not think I was going to [do] so soon after finishing undergrad.
“I just haven’t been able to secure any kind of job that is either a permanent position or even a longer-term contract […] it just feels like this constant scramble to find my next source of income. I can’t say with certainty that I would have found a more stable work situation if it weren’t for COVID-19, but it’s certainly not making it easier.”
—Mattea Roach, University of Toronto, 22
“After four years of school, suddenly having nothing to do was a shock. I was stuck in an endless cycle of applying and not hearing back, but it seemed like social media was flooded with people announcing their new exciting jobs. No matter how many times I reminded myself that we’re in an unprecedented pandemic, I still felt like I was alone and falling behind. I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was missing out on valuable time to build my resume, make contacts, and gain experience.
“I can’t say things would be different had the pandemic not happened, but it’s definitely dampened my spirits.”
—Colin Walsh, Queen’s University, 22
On small pleasures and feeling grateful
“Something I’ve really taken pleasure in this last year is experiencing the seasons as I never have. Victoria has an incredible spring—we are so blessed. I come from Alberta, where it doesn’t really feel like there’s a spring or a fall. It’s just like, summer or winter. So I really got to lavish in that—taking my time to experience fall, and winter, and spring. I had wanted to go for walks and bike rides, but I felt like I never had the freedom to do that when I was in school.
“I am speaking from a place of great privilege. I am in a place of somewhat financial stability and food security. And I recognize that a lot of people are not graduating under the same circumstances.”
—Kiley Verbowski, University of Victoria, 24
On grappling with pandemic guilt
“I hadn’t felt like I graduated, because I think like I was still kind of holding on to the milestone of convocation. It wasn’t only me who had those particular feelings, but it was all of my peers from university who were grappling with these feelings of loss.
“The biggest part about graduating in the first part of the pandemic was that no one was able to articulate their loss or articulate their need for celebration, because of the tremendous loss of lives […] Because in the grand scheme of things, graduating at the time of pandemic wasn’t as important.
“Personally, I was holding on to that mourning of celebration or finality for a really long period of time.”
—Kyle Jarencio, Ryerson University, 22
“It feels like the things that are affecting me do seem quite trivial compared to the tragedy that it is [this pandemic]. I feel like I haven’t even really processed that it’s happening, let alone that I lost things in the process.
“It’s hard to stop and grieve those losses because it’s easier to just be like, ‘this isn’t happening.’ I’ve been talking to some of my friends, and I think we’ll all realize in like, five years, the exact particular ways [COVID-19] affected us.”
—Hana Mason, University of Victoria, 22
Advice for the class of ‘21
“I’ve been struggling with my fears for the future since I graduated in 2020. I’m not afraid of the loss of the world as it was pre-COVID-19—what I am afraid of is the damage the post-COVID world could cause. I hope new graduates can use this pandemic as a chance to learn what our society needs, and how best to help those who the pandemic hurt the most.
“We may not have had the power to stop COVID-19, but we do have the power to decide how we let it change our mindsets.”
—Maia Herriot, Mount Allison University, 22
“Be patient with yourselves. I feel like we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to have a really successful strong career right out of graduation. And there’s a lot to explore, especially in the pandemic, about who we are, and the answers might not come easily.
“Things are going to be a little bit harder right now, but it doesn’t mean that all the work you’ve done is pointless.”
—Chelsy Mahar, Acadia University, 22