Lessons from Vancouver Island’s 2021 grads

‘I recognized that my mental health was more important than sitting at my desk writing a thousand discussion questions.’

Last fall, I sat on a yoga ball at my secondhand desk in front of my computer, watching the time tick down on the screen. In a half attempt at looking fancy, I was wearing a button-up shirt and had my hair tightly styled along with plaid pyjama pants and mismatched socks.

If you had told me on the first day of my university career that I would be watching my convocation ceremony while sitting in a basement suite with patchy wifi, I would have asked for my money back on the math course I foolishly signed up for.

But that’s how the graduating class of 2020 celebrated the end of this chapter in our academic careers, a Facebook Live video of an empty ceremony hall and a quiet stage. At the time the whole thing felt incredibly disjointed, and I tried to eke out humor at being “that historical graduating class.” 

Now, almost 40 weeks later, yet another graduating class has walked the stage via screen and Facebook video. On June 24th, VIU celebrated 2021 grads with another COVID-19 style ceremony.

It comes after a year of most students working completely online; juggling assignments, Zoom meetings, health needs and the growing frustration of re-teaching themselves how to school during their final year,

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It can be difficult to actually feel a sense of accomplishment, of completion, when you move your tassel from one side of your mortarboard to the other when staring at a computer screen.

In hopes of helping create a stronger sense of achievement and to shine a spotlight on a class that deserves it, I reached out to some in 2021 grads to hear their thoughts on this final year and what ways they’re trying to create ceremonies to mark the occasion.

Alex DeMille, VIU: “I let my frustration push me to just finish my assignments.”

For Alex DeMille, her bachelor of arts in digital media comes after attending University of the Fraser Valley for a year before transferring to Vancouver Island University (VIU) to major in the digital media program. She says she completed her BA “…in the traditional way of academics before me; on a Sunday, in my room, at 9:30 in the evening.”

DeMille already had experience with remote education in highschool before the pandemic forced classes to that format. But that previous experience with procrastination that almost kept her from graduating high school had her concerned about how the academic year would play out.

“When the pandemic happened last year I was really worried that I would fail miserably because of my previous experience with online learning. The only difference between these two experiences though, was that in Grade 12, online school made everything feel like the world was ending, and last year the world was actually ending.”

In spite of those concerns, DeMille completed her final semester with everything handed in on time and strong emotions about the whole year.

“I was angry—still angry, about how some professors were making us do so much work with hardly any extensions, I was angry that universities everywhere were raising prices on tuition despite the fact that hardly anyone was working, angry that I had to teach myself everything for my final year of my undergrad, angry that I would go weeks without attending one Zoom lecture because professors didn’t have anything to teach us. Why was I paying thousands of dollars to teach myself? It was all frustrating and I let my frustration push me to just finish my assignments.”

There were other strategies DeMille learned and used to finish her BA. “I let myself take breaks when I needed to, I recognized that my mental health was more important than sitting at my desk writing a thousand discussion questions. I learned how to compartmentalize, how to categorize things by importance. I stayed up late…a lot. I drank a lot of caffeine. Cried. Stress ate. You know, normal #girlboss stuff.”

As for any other plans to mark the end, some personal ceremony to commemorate her achievements in a tumultuous year, DeMille turned to familiar comforts and connection via screen. “When I handed in my last assignment of my undergrad I lied down on the floor of my room and listened to All These Things That I’ve Done by The Killers, then I grabbed a couple coolers and face timed my mom who was having a glass of wine with my grandma so I guess that was my little grad celebration.”

Bailey Branscombe, VIU 2021 grad: ‘One can only control so much.

Many students found the 2021 graduation an odd ending to a journey that can take much longer than four years. Bailey Branscombe, a graduate of VIU’s creative writing program, worked through various hurdles, from administrative errors to juggling a full-time job.

Even with experience taking online classes, and with the knowledge she could reach out to professors for help and extensions, the year of fully online courses still took a toll on mental health and executive functioning.

“It’s one thing to have a physical copy of an assignment printed and ready for class the following morning, but to have a due date for something you’re just going to email off?” Branscombe found that the lack of physical markers of handing assignments in caused increasing anxiety and procrastination.

“My very last research paper was handed in nearly two months after my final semester ended due to a combination of burnout, anxiety attacks, my typical executive dysfunction and my undying perfectionism. It wasn’t exactly how I wanted to end my university career, but one can only control so much when it comes to mental health, a pandemic, and end-of-semester stress.”

Banscombe assumed the online convocation would be a more comfortable ending instead of an anxiety-fueled physical walking the stage. But after graduation photos, a diploma now displayed and the convocation over—there is a feeling of a lackluster ending and of incomplete tasks. A feeling rooted in that fateful spring semester day of 2020.

“None of us knew that a random day in March would be the last time we saw our classmates, sat through a lecture or paid too much money for vending machine potato chips. I may throw a friends and family graduation party, or my best friends and I may just go for dinner to celebrate. Neither will fill that void, though. Perhaps I’ll go visit campus and walk the halls one last time. Maybe then it’ll feel like a proper goodbye.” 

Evan Carr, VIU 2021 grad: ‘It still felt like a celebration of the graduates.

Evan Carr ends his time at university after having tried his hand at computer science, reestablished himself and joined the kinesiology program when it became available at VIU. He graduates with a bachelor’s in kinesiology and a minor in history. When it came to navigating the final year, he pulled lessons from a close source.

“I took inspiration from my sister’s organizational skills in order to properly manage my time throughout my last year of school,” Carr explains. “She graduated with her second degree from UVic last year, and she was extremely diligent in outlining all her courses as well as making sure she had plenty of reminders surrounding important due dates.”

As Carr still currently resides in Nanaimo, plans for a personal way to mark his graduation with friends and relatives in Victoria will soon become reality. “My family has arranged a personal ceremony for me back in Victoria in order to celebrate my graduation.  Some sort of backyard event where we can spend some time together

Until then, the VIU convocation feels like a satisfactory end for this academic chapter. “I thought the online convocation was done wonderfully, given the situation that was presented. It was paced well, had a great mix of sincerity and entertainment, and I enjoyed it very much.  While it may not have had the same impact as a standard convocation, it was unique, and it still felt like a celebration of the graduates.”

Carrie Davis, VIU 2021 grad: ‘The pandemic has been rough, and I’m proud of you for surviving it!

Carrie Davis is celebrating the end of one academic journey and the start of another. They started their academic career at Camosun College, earning a certificate in digital communications and an internship designation at Shaw TV South Vancouver Island. That passion for video led Davis to VIU, where they graduated with a bachelor of arts majoring in digital media. Now they’re preparing for the masters of fine arts documentary media program at Ryerson University.

For Davis, a valuable mentor became their source of success in the pandemic academic grind. Colette Jones, a Snuneymuxw member and educator committed to building bridges between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, taught Davis some critical lessons.

“She reminded us to go easy on ourselves, take fewer classes if we can’t handle the workload, go to counselling, and engage in culture. Jones would say the go-go-go mentality is a colonial mindset; but in Indigenous ways, we need to take care of our whole being—our body, mind and spirit. I had four classes and two jobs for my last semester, so I meticulously scheduled my days on a whiteboard, but I refused to work on Sundays so that I could have one day a week to myself. My GPA ended up the highest since I began school, and I believe it’s correlated to taking care of myself.”

Jones became a key point of community for Davis, and a BBQ celebration with select relations was a fitting way to mark graduation. Davis’s partner also celebrated their success with a song and drumming at a pipe ceremony the next day.

“I never planned to do anything special, but the people in my life made sure that I knew they were proud of my achievement and that it was worth celebrating.”

As for final words, Davis wants to pass on that compassion and care Jones instilled in them.

“I know not everyone did well in the online environment the last few semesters, and I hope you don’t give up and keep going back. You’re not dumb, the pandemic has been rough, and I’m proud of you for surviving it!”

Vanessa Bernard, UVic 2021 grad: ‘I pulled on the support of my family.’

Being a part of the graduating class of 2021 marked an academic career that spanned 24 years and five post-secondary institutions for Vanessa Bernard. With a focus that shifted between forestry and geography, Bernard traveled between provinces to complete various certificates and diplomas.

But, while working nearly full-time hours and studying geography, Bernard was forced to hit the pause button at the news she was expecting twins. She was four classes shy from completing her degree. It would take another 13 years, a move to Courtenay, B.C. and one more child before Bernard was able to meet with an advisor at UVic and see what needed to be done to complete her degree. Then COVID-19 forced all classes online, and Bernard knew it was now or never.

For Bernard, family became a cornerstone for the academic year. “I pulled on the support of my family. I needed a lot of help with organization and time management as I continued to work full time as well as parent 3 children. I focused on the gratitude that I felt for being able to finish this when the moments were particularly hard.”

And when it came time to celebrate the end of a long journey, once again family was at the centre of it. “I came home the night of my final paper and my partner had made a banner that spanned the house saying ‘You Did It!’ This meant the world to me. I then went out for dinner with my mom and dad which was great. I plan on attending what I hope will be an in person convocation in November at UVic.”

Walking the stage together

When I received my email laying out the plans for the 2020 graduation ceremony, there was a line offering all graduates who haven’t walked the stage due to COVID-19 the opportunity to attend a future in-person convocation. It’s an odd little silver lining, but one some students are already planning for. I have friends in each graduating class since my 2020 basement convocation. Before the pandemic, there were jokes and bemoaning about not all getting to graduate together. But now there’s a growing idea that we pick the same in-person graduation and walk the stage together. It will be a long-awaited ceremony, but we’ll enjoy the odd win when it happens. [end]

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