That semester, of course, was upended by the pandemic. Last year’s senior class abruptly left campus, finishing their classes at home and graduating in virtual ceremonies from their living rooms.
A feeling of incompleteness has lingered since.
“I felt like I wasn’t quite finished there,” said Klein, 23, who stayed behind in Charlottesville to work as an EMT. “I didn’t have that chance to say goodbye.”
Rarely in life is there an opportunity for a do-over. But that’s what the Class of 2020 will have this spring. Many are journeying back to their alma mater to finally have the celebrations they were denied last year.
At U-Va., it was important for last year’s graduates to be recognized officially for their achievements, said Jim Ryan, the university’s president, in a message to the former students.
“It has been a challenging year, especially for your class,” he told them.
Ned Engelbride, who earned a finance degree last year from the University of Maryland, will travel from Albany, N.Y., to College Park this month to cross the stage in the university’s football stadium.
“I’ve kind of been looking forward to it for a year, almost,” said Engelbride, 22. “I was actually pretty excited to see the university was offering 2020 grads the opportunity to get that feeling, to walk across the stage.”
For many students, graduation is not just the culmination of college — it’s a time to honor the years spent juggling multiple jobs, the long nights in the library, the sacrifices that led to a degree.
It’s a time for students to thank the people who got them through school, the supportive parents, loyal friends and devoted professors.
“You go to school for four years and your parents want you to walk across the stage,” Engelbride said. Last year, he slept through the university’s virtual ceremony. “When you realize you’re going to be doing it from your family room, it’s disheartening.”
For A’Keia Sanders, a graduate of the University of Nevada at Reno, getting her nutrition degree in 2020 marked the end of a journey that lasted more than a decade.
Sanders started her undergraduate degree at 18, but said she wasn’t focused on school. She spent much of her time at Pensacola Junior College in Florida — now Pensacola State College — partying and skipping class.
So, at the suggestion of her friend’s father, Sanders enlisted in the U.S. Navy.
Sanders finished active duty and entered the reserves in 2017, meaning she could finally return to her degree. She enrolled at the flagship university in Nevada, where she lives with her husband and children.
“It was definitely a little bit of a shell shock,” said Sanders, now 32. She remembers sitting in classes with students in their early 20s. She eventually found a community of veterans on campus, men and women in their late 20s, 30s and 50s who came from all branches of the military.
Sanders took a full course load her final year, on top of working in the office of Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) and raising a family. She gave birth to her second child in November 2019, a week before final exams.
She hopes crossing the stage on May 12 will mean as much to her 5- and 1-year-old sons as it does to her.
“Being able to show my kids, ‘This is what Mommy did,’ so they know what hard work looks like … is kind of why I did it, and why I went so hard,” Sanders said.
Megan Matesic, 30, is also among those celebrating belatedly. She went back to Seton Hall University in April to have the ceremony she deserved.
“I worked really hard for that degree,” said Matesic, who earned a PhD in higher education leadership, management and policy from Seton Hall. “It was about four years of classes and writing my dissertation. It was so much work that I put into it.”
Alex Birbilis, now a middle school language arts teacher, returned to the College of New Jersey last month to have the celebration that didn’t happen last spring. She graduated with a degree in elementary education, with a middle school and English specialization.
The redo meant she could wear the graduation cap — decorated with a lyric from her favorite band — she designed as a freshman. And, her 88-year-old grandmother could be there in person.
Going back to campus provided Birbilis with much-needed closure, she said, allowing her to move on with the rest of her life. It felt like an amicable end to a relationship.
“I finally felt better taking myself off the college email list,” Birbilis said. “It really did feel like, finally, an end to one chapter.”