Some students working their way to a college degree have been left with a feeling of “What now?”

Colleges and universities are unable to hold traditional commencement exercises in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, so some 2020 graduates feel like there is no closure to their college years.

“College, I think is a bigger milestone than high school for some people, and it was hard not to have that,” said Zaidee Rada, who grew up in Scottsbluff and graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a bachelor's degree in journalism. “I had a celebration here with my friends, but I’m big on closing the book and closing that chapter of my life, and it felt like I wasn’t able to fully close the yearbook. It didn’t feel like it was ended. It felt like I turned in my last assignment and I was done.”

Olivia Armstrong of Mitchell felt the same way as she finished up her associate degree in elementary education at Western Nebraska Community college.

“It kind of felt like it wasn’t real,” Armstrong said. “Just the other day, I was like, ‘Oh, yeah. I do have my associate degree.’ It didn’t feel like it because I kind of just did my last final, and I was like, ‘Oh. I’m done.’ It didn’t feel like I completed it. ... You feel like you should be doing your homework, or there’s something I should be doing, but you’re done.”

Brooke Snyder watched her virtual graduation ceremony with her family as she completed her medical degree from the University of Nebraska Medical Center. A past graduate of Morrill High School, the pre-recorded ceremony allowed for Snyder’s parents to take part in the hooding portion of the ceremony.

“We were all disappointed, but we all, obviously, understand the gravity of the situation, and that we all need to do our part to help society,” Snyder said. “We’re all understanding, but definitely disappointed, although it doesn’t diminish what everyone graduating has done.”

For Armstrong, who is considering online classes through Chadron State College in the fall, her spring semester was a bit of a trial run. She had a technology class where reality moved into the classroom.

“We talked a lot about what would we do if the technology didn’t work or what we could do with certain technologies,” she said. “That class was kind of cool during this because we were able to practice it in a real scenario.”

Rada had been working as an intern for Spreetail, an online e-commerce company, and was able to move into a full-time position there.

“I asked a couple people I lived with what they’re doing, and they say they’re moving back in with their parents, and they have no jobs, so it makes me feel better about where I’m at,” Rada said.

Armstrong already had jobs as a clerk at Holiday Inn Express and mowing the grounds at the Morrill Cemetery, so she is thankful that she had something already in place. She has friends who are not so fortunate and are dealing with closed workplaces and unemployment.

“I definitely think it will make us more grateful for things,” Armstrong said of the 2020 experience. “If you look back at it, I go to work and, ugh, I don’t want to. I just want to stay home and do nothing. But then when you’re stuck at home doing nothing ... I don’t want to be doing nothing. You take for granted the things you get to do and the opportunities you have.”

When classes shut down in Lincoln, Rada moved to Grand Island where her parents now live. That put her in one of the COVID-19 hotspots of Nebraska. In early April, she moved back to Lincoln.

“When I’m here in Lincoln, if I need to go to the store, I can go – wear my mask and do my own thing,” she said. “When I was in Grand Island, I had to be really cautious of even going on walks. My step-dad works at the hospital there, so going in and out, we had to be really cautious of who we were around, so me and my mom never left the house. Everything was brought to us for take-out. We didn’t even go to the store very much. It’s more relieving being here. I actually feel like I get to live more of a normal life than being in Grand Island. It was kind of scary being around someone who has to go to the hospital and has a lot of pressure on them there.”

Snyder will be practicing general surgery in Oklahoma City in a few weeks. Entering the medical field in the midst of a pandemic isn’t standard practice, but Snyder said she and her classmates are ready for the challenge.

“I’m nervous, but this is what we all signed up for in a way,” she said. “I’m excited to get to use the knowledge and skills UNMC gave me to help people. It will definitely be different starting practicing in a pandemic, but we should be good.”

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Reporter

Mark McCarthy is a reporter with the Star-Herald and oversees the Gering Courier as editor. He can be reached at 308-632-9049 or via email at mark.mccarthy@starherald.com.

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