The Class of 2020: Graduating into a pandemic

Twelve seniors, from high school and college, get ready to graduate into a world upended by the coronavirus

This year’s graduates were only kids when the first iPhone came out. Facebook wasn’t around to capture their births, but by 2009, when today’s high school graduates turned 7, there were 350 million users documenting porch smiles on the first day of school and superheroes on Halloween patrol.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that their final months of high school, or the end of their college careers, have unspooled on the Internet. But this particular iteration of online life has brought mostly sadness. If you’ve studied for four years, dreaming of the final weeks of school, with its freedom and light, pranks and parties, how do you settle for a sign on the lawn declaring, “Congratulations, Class of 2020!”?

They’ve known hardship before. Situated demographically on the leading edge of Generation Z, they can’t remember a time when the twin towers touched the clouds over Manhattan, or when the United States was not at war. They lived through the Great Recession.

Now, college graduates are launching themselves into the worst job market since the Great Depression. Some high school graduates are, too. Others face the possibility that a virus that destroyed the end of high school will also cancel the start of college.

And yet they move on, writing their final papers and logging on for their last classes. They cherish found time with family and Zoom life with friends. The “Congratulations, Class of 2020!” signs pale against expectations, but eyes still fill with happy tears when they are delivered, when a caravan of teachers drives by honking, when a beloved principal waves from the sidewalk.

The pandemic has upended the final months for the Class of 2020 in ways tiny and profound, academic and economic, social and emotional. These graduates — six leaving high school, six finishing college — offer 12 slices of a story that they, and we, will be telling for decades to come. — Laura Meckler

(Courtesy of Nikki Akula)

Nikki Akula

Now: Broad Run High School, Ashburn, Va. | Next: University of Virginia

Nikki Akula’s hands first turned purple during sophomore year.

The stains, from a dye known as “crystal violet,” also flecked her T-shirts, notebooks and, some mornings, her cheeks. That’s because, for three years, Akula rose at 6:30 a.m. and drove to school hours before class to conduct extracurricular research. She was seeking an enzyme able to break down “biofilms,” bacteria-generated gunk that makes it hard for sick people to get better.

This year, Akula finally found that enzyme — actually, two. She figured out how to package them into a pill. She was eight days away from submitting her results to the Loudoun County Regional Science and Engineering Fair when schools closed.

At first, she stayed hopeful — there was talk of an online competition — but then she got a text from research partner Maddie Edwards.

“Science fair was canceled bud,” Edwards wrote.

“I can’t keep thinking I’m gonna wake up,” Akula wrote back.

A month later, her hands are pristine. Her hopes of a $5,000 scholarship to do research at the University of Virginia, where she will matriculate next year (if anyone matriculates next year), are ruined, because the money was tied to the results of the fair.

Her research is unfinished. Five pencil-thin test tubes of bacteria sit untouched in Broad Run freezers, alongside two thumb-sized vials of enzyme.

In the first days of the shutdown, Akula thought about her aborted research every hour. In the weeks since then, she’d found distractions: Zooming with friends. Binge-watching “Suits.” Reading.

But whenever classmates lament the loss of graduation, or prom, or just the normal school day, Akula’s mind spins immediately to the subject that still, sometimes, makes her cry.

Mornings feel most wrong. Sometimes, Akula still wakes up before 7. For a moment, she panics: She’s running late; she has to get to the lab.

Then she remembers. She closes her eyes and tries to go back to sleep. — Hannah Natanson

(Nanuet EMS)

Matt Zoda

Now: University at Albany, State University of New York (emergency preparedness) | Next: U.S. Justice Department

Matt Zoda’s days start early: wake up, schoolwork, online classes. By 1 p.m. he’s on the truck.

Zoda started volunteering with his hometown’s emergency medical service when he was in high school. When it came time to go to college, he chose one — the State University of New York at Albany — with a student-run ambulance corps. “It was something I didn’t want to give up,” Zoda says.

As an emergency medical technician, Zoda has spent hundreds of hours every semester with the school’s Five Quad Volunteer Ambulance Service. He hadn’t missed a beat during his senior year. Until the virus hit.

His home state became a hot spot. Then campus shut down.

Within a couple of weeks, the senior year Zoda had planned evaporated. He returned home, started going to classes online and abandoned any hope of walking across the stage at graduation. He also knew it was the end of the Five Quad ambulance corps.

But Zoda was determined to salvage what he could from his senior year, so he reached out to the Nanuet Community Ambulance Corps and said he’d volunteer.

His patients are older than the ones he saw on campus. He’s had to get used to wearing a gown, Tyvek suit, N95 mask, goggles and a face shield on every call. “Because you don’t know what the risk is,” he says.

On campus, Zoda had three roommates but his own bedroom. Now he worries about bringing a potentially life-threatening virus home to five other people: his family. “It’s nerve-racking,” he says. But he keeps going. And Nanuet needs more than just him, so Zoda rallied the other EMTs from campus.

“Nobody backed down from it,” he says. — Lauren Lumpkin

(Cindy Kaufman)

Sari Kaufman

Now: Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Parkland, Fla. | Next: Yale University

In her lowest moments, Sari Kaufman will allow for a little self-pity. High school shouldn’t have been this hard, after all. Or this sad.

As her senior year collapses near the finish line, the cumulative weight of her high school years is sinking in. Kaufman admits that she and her friends have looked to each other and asked, “Why did this happen to us?”

Kaufman was a 15-year-old sophomore in 2018 when a gunman killed 14 of her schoolmates and three staff members. She lost friends that day. And she lost the youthful naivete that lets you believe anything is possible. Innocence doesn’t survive a shooting either.

“With the shooting, we had to become more serious, instead of being able to just be a kid who can, you know, not really think about too much and just enjoy,” Kaufman says. “It feels a lot darker.”

Academics took a back seat. Surviving was all that mattered. Many of Kaufman’s schoolmates became politically active, drawing on their experience to help fuel a national gun-control movement. Kaufman was the lead organizer for Parkland’s March for Our Lives and is on the national advisory board of Students Demand Action.

The aftermath of the shooting, she says, prepared her in some ways for the grief and despair wrought by a pandemic that has stolen lives and livelihoods. She also sees the coronavirus as another message to her young cohorts.

“There have been so many wake-up calls,” Kaufman says. “Like the school shootings, like seeing how polarized our society is. And now with the virus, and seeing how important it is to have elected officials who are competent to be able to address the problems that are really unprecedented. I think that adds up to the culture of our generation.” — Joe Heim

(Courtesy of Lucas Chin)

Lucas Kuok Chunn Chin

Now: Indiana University at Bloomington (business psychology) | Next: Join the family business

Every day’s the same now: Wake up. Eat. Study. Planks and sit-ups on the beige carpet of his Midwestern apartment. Eat. Study. Sleep.

Lucas Kuok Chunn Chin thought about going home when campus emptied. But after a spike of cases back home in Malaysia, the borders were shut down for most travelers. The 12-hour time difference would make virtual classes difficult, too. And he worried that if he went home, he wouldn’t make it back to attend his graduation.

He knew his family wouldn’t make it as planned. “I really want to show them my campus,” Chin says, with its beautiful old limestone buildings and a footprint so large he had to use Google Maps to find his classes. He wanted to tell them about how the professors were so different from those in Malaysia, so interested to hear arguments backed by facts. “I just want to celebrate the moment,” he says.

Instead, his parents are still back home. Graduation has been postponed. And he is inside his apartment. Studying, eating, exercising, sleeping.

Chin finished his final project, researching whether he could scale up his parents’ commercial linens business to the United States. (It looked promising.) He planned to work for them in Malaysia and launch that expansion. But now the business, deemed nonessential by the government during the pandemic, is shut down.

He tried to learn some Malay cooking, some spicy curries to add to the Chinese staples he had been making. He kept to his schedule, writing final papers, getting ready for exams. Study. Eat. Pull-ups. Sit-ups. Sleep.

It’s not the ending he wanted. But he did get one final lesson. “I learned through the coronavirus how to adapt to situations — how to be more independent, and have the motivation to do stuff,” he says. “I set my time well.” — Susan Svrluga

(Courtesy of Rita Kibaki)

Rita Kibaki

Now: Perry High School, Gilbert, Ariz. | Next: Arizona State University

Rita Kibaki guesses she’s watched 200 or 250 of the YouTube videos by now, studying college kids decorating their dorm rooms and daydreaming about what she might do with her own. She imagined a farmhouse feel, with plants and wood accents, a mini-fridge and some of those black and white storage bins from Ikea for her clothing. “Simplistic but cute,” as Kibaki describes it.

Kibaki was admitted to both Arizona State University and the University of Arizona. Then the virus stole her senior spirit week, her prom and, it seemed, her college dreams.

Her family immigrated to the United States from Kenya when she was 3. Her mom, a mental health case manager, is still working. But her father, an engineer, was laid off last year. He replaced some income driving for Uber; he used Kibaki’s car, a 16th birthday present, because it was newer and nicer. Now that income’s gone, too. Thankfully, the gym where Kibaki usually teaches gymnastics is still paying her, so she can help out.

By mid-April, a four-year college felt out of reach. The better option, Kibaki reasoned, would be community college.

Kibaki wanted to talk it through with her high school counselors, but with school closed, she couldn’t find them. Then, one day in late April, Kibaki connected with a financial aid counselor at Arizona State. Kibaki didn’t qualify for a Pell grant, because the calculations were based on her parents’ income last year. Still, she went over the numbers. Tuition was $11,500 per year, and Kibaki earned about $1,000 a month. She had a few modest scholarships, and her parents said they would help as much as they could.

She could afford it, she decided, if she lived at home. So that’s her plan. There will be no dorm room, no mini-fridge, no farmhouse feel. But that’s fine with her.

“I plan to redecorate my room,” she says. “Everyone else is going to be decorating their dorm, so why not decorate my room?” — Laura Meckler

(Courtesy of Morehouse College)

Golden Daka

Now: Morehouse College (psychology) | Next: Fellowship; applying to law school

He was a small, sickly baby, barely a weight on his mother’s back wrapped in the traditional chitenge fabric in Zambia. She named him Golden. It was a prophecy of good luck.

He hated that name, especially once he and his family — his mother, aunt, grandmother, twin brother and cousins — arrived in Maryland. Classmates stared at him whenever the teacher called roll.

The three women worked and studied nursing. The families crowded into a single apartment. When she couldn’t pay the electricity bill, Golden Daka’s mother lit candles so he and his brother could study.

After a year of working full-time and taking the train to community college, Daka applied to hundreds of scholarships. At the end of that summer, two days before classes began at Morehouse College, hoping against hope that funding would come through, he carried a suitcase and a pillow onto a Megabus to Atlanta.

“When you get on the Morehouse campus you feel something special in the air,” he says. “You feel that something greater is there.”

He loves his name now, for the optimism that infused it. And their fortunes did change. His mother and aunt became nurses. His 4.0 GPA put him in the running to be Morehouse’s valedictorian, and to speak at commencement, held outside with African drums pounding.

But Morehouse classes are now viewed from the basement, the quietest spot he can find back home in Maryland with the five kids, from 6 years old to 22, all living together. There’s no more of the engaging dialogue that defined his classes until now. Classmates listen from ear buds as they deliver food or work other jobs to stay afloat. “Deep down inside,” he says, “we’re all devastated.”

He’s still dreaming of law school. In recent days, he celebrated with his twin brother, John Daka, who signed with the Baltimore Ravens. And he was just offered, and accepted, a fellowship.

But his mother is still working, an added stress. Not long ago, her cries echoed through the house, after her sister was hospitalized with covid-19.

“It’s been a process,” Daka says. “I’m trying to stay as positive as possible. It’s hard.”

Hope won out. Last week, his aunt came home, he said — “an amazing thing.” — Susan Svrluga

(Courtesy of Abby Dirr)

Abby Dirr

Now: Seton High School, Cincinnati | Next: Xavier University

Abby Dirr was in third grade when she performed in her first show, “Winnie the Pooh.” She played the Wise Owl. Since then, she’s appeared in 13 musicals and four plays, a run that was set to culminate this spring. At last, she had been cast in a lead role in her spring high school musical, “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Rehearsals started in January. Dirr was thrilled with her part, and with the show. She had developed a love of theater in part through her grandmother, who performed in musicals alongside Dirr’s grandfather in community theaters. Her grandma once had starred in “Fiddler” herself.

“I’d always had this goal when I started theater that I would be able to be in the same show my grandma had been in,” she says. “It was kind of one of those bucket-list kind of things.”

Dirr was at rehearsal when word came down that all Ohio schools would be closed until April 6. The musical was supposed to run from April 1 to 5. “I was crushed,” Dirr says. In late April, the show was officially canceled.

There was, however, an unexpected upside. As her senior year unfolded, a former best friend had, in Dirr’s telling, recruited one of Dirr’s new best friends and turned her against her. All three girls were in “Fiddler” together, and the closer those two became, the harder it was for Dirr.

Now, with school closed, all that drama drained away. She’s spending time with her family, including her brother, who is home from college. She’s decided she no longer really cares what other people think about her or how she looks or what she wears. And the school created a video of students singing their “Fiddler” songs and talking about what theater has meant to them.

“I’ve felt a weight lifted from my chest and shoulders,” Dirr says. And she knows there are more shows in her future. In college, she plans to major in theater. — Laura Meckler

(Mark Selders, Penn State Athletics)

Lamar Stevens

Now: Pennsylvania State University (sociology) | Next: Professional basketball

The losses were piling up. First the Nittany Lions fell to the Iowa Hawkeyes. Then Michigan State. Northwestern delivered the final blow.

“It was next-game mentality,” says Lamar Stevens, the team’s top scorer.

But that next game never came.

“Pretty much everybody was crying and hugging each other,” he says. “We were ready to fight it until the end.”

Stevens had something personal to fight for: He was just seven points shy of breaking the university’s all-time scoring record of 2,213 points.

The first couple of weeks post-basketball were tinged with bitterness, he says. It was March without the Madness, and it felt unfair to have the season stolen like that.

But as he learned more about the virus and its toll, Stevens came to terms with his new reality. He went back to the gym and started doing strength and conditioning workouts on Zoom. He’s been checking on his teammates and talking to coaches on the phone. He’s preparing for the last exam of his college career, in a music class.

Now, Stevens is looking toward the NBA. The draft is scheduled for June, but teams have been told not to hold in-person workouts or interviews with players during the league’s hiatus. So Stevens is doing what a lot of seniors are, if only with a little more money in the balance.

“Staying in shape, trying to keep my body intact,” Stevens says. “Figuring out what’s next.” — Lauren Lumpkin

(Courtesy of Harrison Van Der Walt)

Harrison Van Der Walt

Now: Los Gatos High School, Los Gatos, Calif. | Next: California Polytechnic State University

Harrison Van Der Walt figures he’s spent about 250 hours since January building Voltaire: every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, holed up in the engineering room after school with his teammates for hours, building that two-foot-high machine.

Rockefeller, Copernicus and Tu Youyou were good robots, too. They could complete tasks like picking up milk crates, placing items on a homemade elevator and plugging holes. But Voltaire could pick up seven-inch foam dodgeballs, store five of them at a time and then accurately throw them at different targets.

It was the best robot they’d built in four years, his says.

Voltaire was supposed to make his competitive debut the week after schools closed in March. That competition was postponed, along with subsequent ones. The organizers say they are trying to find a way to hold a competition when health guidelines allow for it, but that remains uncertain.

“It destroyed our season,” Van Der Walt says, but he’s clinging to perspective: “Things happen in life.” He and his teammates are trying to make the most out of their unexpected offseason. They communicate via Slack, and some teammates are working on small engineering projects to hone their skills. Van Der Walt is learning a new coding language.

He’s still planning to attend Cal Poly in September, majoring in materials engineering. Before that, he’s scheduled to take an overnight hiking trip in Lake Tahoe with friends in June. He’s hoping it won’t be canceled, too, but even if it does, he’s prepared to make the most of his new plan-less life.

“With a lot of people staying home, you actually get to see the beauty in the world around [you],” he says. “The other day I woke up to birds chirping, which was so cool. I don’t think I had heard that in so long.” — Perry Stein

(Kara Taylor)

Kara Taylor

Now: Michigan State University (political theory) | Next: Politics or nonprofits

Going into her final semester, Kara Taylor reveled in her independence. She had a steady job as a desk attendant at a residence hall, earning enough money to pay her bills and live off-campus with three roommates. The job was supposed to last through the summer, too, giving her enough time to find a position in local government or at a nonprofit.

Instead, Taylor is facing unemployment, and the prospect of moving back in with her parents, younger brother and grandfather.

“This is not what I thought my life would be right now,” Taylor says. “I’ve been self-sufficient and living on my own for four years. Now, it kind of feels like I’m back at square one.”

Taylor had planned to spend the semester’s final months shoring up her résumé and mapping out a career path in her adviser’s office. Meeting over Zoom is not the same. “All of the time it felt like I had to prepare, set myself up for success, has kind of been robbed,” Taylor says.

Every job application she has submitted yields the same response, she says: “We have a pause in our hiring; we will contact you once we can.” The job market in her hometown of Greenville, Mich., a town of about 8,400, is bleak. And she’s not sure of her prospects of finding work in the nearest big city, Grand Rapids.

“It’s difficult to make plans,” she says, or to “take any big risks right now.”

For now, Taylor is hoping unemployment benefits, a stimulus check and savings will be enough to cover the rent until her lease is up in August. Commencement will be virtual, which will be harder on her family than on her.

“They had dinner reservations already … and really wanted to celebrate the work that I’ve put in,” Taylor says. “We’re hoping come the fall we can get together for a belated celebration.” — Danielle Douglas-Gabriel

(Courtesy of Andrea Anaya)

Andrea Anaya

Now: John F. Kennedy High School, Silver Spring, Md. | Next: Marymount University

Senior year started in a way Andrea Anaya couldn’t have imagined as a freshman.

Anaya had moved from El Salvador as a child, and the rhetoric about border walls and law-breaking immigrants back then cast long shadows on her sense of possibility. She skipped classes and didn’t pay attention when she did go.

“I didn’t really care about my future because I really didn’t see one,” she says.

But in time, she found inspiration in classmates who pushed ahead despite hardships, and in teachers who really saw her — not as a teenager who didn’t care, but as a student with spark and drive who only needed a reason.

By senior year, she’d been elected class president. Every afternoon, she interned in a congressman’s Maryland field office, a position she got after landing a summer gig on Capitol Hill. The year was a swirl of college applications and scholarship searches and school activities.

Now, Anaya is at home, caring for her siblings, ages 3, 7 and 12, while her mother and grandmother work. How much is lost has dawned on her slowly.

“I was numb,” she says. “Now I’m just really disappointed.”

She thinks of the graduation speech she had once expected to give, before a crowd in the historic grandeur of DAR Constitution Hall. She might have said she was not supposed to be here. Or that she has learned that no matter what goes wrong, there is a way to overcome it.

College looms, as does a final story or two for the school newspaper. One topic she will write about: mental health in times of covid-19.

“As an immigrant, that’s been my life — fearing for the future,” she says. “Now everyone is fearing for the future.” — Donna St. George

(Courtesy of Angie Forburger)

Angie Forburger

Now: University of California at Los Angeles (communications) | Next: Considering journalism jobs

The final spring break of her college years had just vaporized, and Angie Forburger had flown home to Phoenix, after the virus forced her school, like all schools, to halt face-to-face teaching.

“Never thought that this is how my four years would end,” she tweeted on March 18. “Absolutely devastating.”

But Forburger couldn’t mourn for long. She had a story to cover. The editor in chief of the Daily Bruin, she was forced to take a momentous step: announcing that the five-day-a-week student newspaper would cease printing for the spring term — the first rollback in production since World War II.

“It’s definitely a crazy time. But what better time to be a student journalist than now?” Forburger says. “If anything, it’s been a unique opportunity to expand our digital content. That’s where our readers are.”

All spring, the Daily Bruin homepage and Twitter feed have been filled with news on student government elections, the switch to online teaching and the UC system’s response to the virus crisis. An online tracker reports the latest tallies: 27 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in the UCLA community as of early May, and more than 26,000 in Los Angeles County. The opinions section launched a series called “Columns From Quarantine.”

Forburger misses the messy bustle of a newsroom that’s the home base of more than 300 journalists. Her newsroom, like all newsrooms, is now virtual.

“Normally, you are the one that people look to, asking, ‘How are we going to deal with this? What’s the next step?’ ” she says. “And you don’t even know the answer to that yourself.”

Nor can she know what her post-graduation job search will bring, with her considering an industry, journalism, that’s at once vital and decimated. But for now, covering the crisis is getting her through the spring. “Being a student journalist,” she says, “helped me cope a little bit better.” — Nick Anderson

Photo of Anaya at top by Uma Fox.

We noticed you’re blocking ads!

Keep supporting great journalism by turning off your ad blocker. Or purchase a subscription for unlimited access to real news you can count on.
Unblock ads
Questions about why you are seeing this? Contact us