Many special senior moments have been upended by COVID-19—and a traditional Commencement will have to wait. But the Class of 2020 has made memories that no virus can destroy
On March 15, about 50 Occidental seniors padded into Remsen Bird Hillside Theater and took seats on its concrete benches. It was a made-to-order Sunday morning in Los Angeles: The mercury stood at 70 degrees, and a few lingering clouds were the only remnants of spring rains that a day earlier scrubbed the skies crystalline blue.
Anticipating their last days on campus, they could not have foreseen this moment—an impromptu “commencement” thrown together in response to COVID-19. Some students dressed formally, while others wore stoles over their T-shirts and jeans. Seniors wrote their names and majors on notecards, which were read over a small speaker as they crossed the stage. They were invited to share something about themselves—such as being the first in their family to attend college, or that they were graduating magna cum laude.
“Things changed overnight,” says Teagan Mucher ’20, a computer science major from San Francisco (he wore jeans). “We wanted to have some kind of ceremony to wrap up our time.” Hand sanitizer was available, he adds. Afterward, there was a small get-together at an off-campus house where social distancing was at least encouraged.
For the 447 members of Occidental’s Class of 2020, the pandemic signaled an abrupt end to college life as they knew it. And while they are completing coursework remotely online, many of the final rites of passage—senior week and Commencement among them—were canceled or postponed to an uncertain future. (Out of 290 respondents to a senior survey conducted in mid-April, an overwhelming majority indicated their preference to have an in-person Commencement experience.)
On March 12, Mucher was driving home from a camping trip to Mojave National Preserve when he and his girlfriend, Catherine Terry ’20, got an email from President Jonathan Veitch announcing Oxy was moving classes online, and asking students to leave campus by March 20.
“We drove in stunned silence for about 20 minutes, just trying to process anything,” recalls Mucher, who is taking a job as a technical product manager at Facebook. “And then I started calling friends and family and just lamenting and grieving together, and figuring out our next plans.”
Resident adviser Emily Jo Wharry ’20 says a second note was sent to RAs, informing them that their duties would cease in a few days. Many students were in a daze at the sudden news, says Wharry, a history and politics major from Simi Valley. Others, she notes with a chuckle, took advantage of the lack of official supervision.
“A lot of the freshmen were like, ‘Well, the world is ending. I guess we’ll just party and see what happens after that.’ We all realized that it wasn’t a two- or three-week thing; it was indefinite because of coronavirus.”
During spring break in early March, as the rapid spread of the coronavirus dominated the national conversation, Leah Harman ’20 and her friends watched as USC and Loyola Marymount University were among the first schools in Southern California to shift to remote learning. “We all kind of knew it was coming,” the history major recalls. “The moment that Pomona decided, we were like, ‘OK, we’re gone.’ ”
After a 30-hour drive from campus, Harman continues to shelter in place at her mom’s home in Minneapolis. She keeps in touch with friends via FaceTime, sharing virtual happy hours and playing online group trivia on Jackbox.
“It’s one of those situations that is so out of everyone’s control that we’re kind of taking our disappointment with a grain of salt,” she says. “We all feel very lucky that we were able to have 3½ really amazing years under our belt.”
While Harman is morose about missing Commencement and senior week, she considers giving her senior comp in December a kind of satisfactory closure. The work, coincidentally, happened to address topics that would inform conversations about COVID-19. Her presentation, “Manly Medicine: Masculinity in the 19th-Century Debate on Pueperal Fever,” considered in part the importance of handwashing in combating the often-fatal uterine infection that struck women after childbirth.
“Having a deliverable that shows all of the hard work you’ve put in over the years is a really cool thing,” she says. “I can definitely frame my closure that way.”
Harman has always been passionate about the history of medicine. She wrote her junior seminar paper on the eradication of smallpox. She also researched H1N1 during her time at Oxy. “My professors always rolled their eyes and said, ‘Oh, Leah, how are you going to spin my class so you can write about the history of medicine?’ ” she says. “I’d usually figure out a way to.”
She eventually wants to pursue a doctorate in the history of science of medicine, but in the short term she’s planning to take a job at the University of Wisconsin, where she’ll serve as an administrative liaison in the history department.
Others are presenting their comps remotely. From her family’s home in Woodbury, Minn., Jane Crosby-Schmidt ’20 is finishing her MAC comp project and her economics honors project as her family—including a brother, a sophomore at the University of Puget Sound who also is finishing classes online—bides its time outdoors.
“A lot of these big milestone moments just got taken away,” the economics/media arts and culture major says. “I’ve talked to a lot of my classmates, and we’re all kind of scrambling to try to find some closure, in other ways, for these things that have been super important in our lives over the last four years.”
In April, she and her classmates recorded their MAC comps and sent them to professors, who in turn broadcast them over a livestream to viewers, who could then ask the presenters questions. “When I was done, I went back into the kitchen and had a late dinner by myself while I was texting one of my friends who also presented—rather than celebrating in person with my classmates and my professors,” Crosby-Schmidt says. “If we do have a graduation at some point, I think it’ll be even more meaningful than it would have been originally, because of how this semester ended.”
Graduation wasn’t the only casualty of COVID-19. Dance Production, the College’s largest student-run group on campus—of which Crosby-Schmidt is president—canceled its performance dates, the first time since the group’s founding in 1948. This year about 250 students took part in the program, in which students learn dance styles from around the globe. No experience is necessary. “That was a big source of community for me,” Crosby-Schmidt says.
Across campus, in Oxy’s residence halls, students packed their belongings and headed home. The other option was to leave their possessions in the dorms and retrieve them at an indeterminate date. When spring break started, the coronavirus wasn’t on the minds of most students, says resident adviser Wharry, who was sitting on her couch at home when she got the email.
“I was crushed, because I love school so much,” she says. “To have not only academics taken away so quickly but friends and mentors and professors—people who I knew I would never see again in my role as a student—was totally devastating. I had a day when I just sat by myself and cried and let out all of the pathetic emotions in one go.”
Not every student left campus in mid-March. Jason Yu, a studio art/Japanese studies major from Shanghai, was among nearly 200 students permitted to stay in one of three residence halls for the remainder of the semester due to extenuating circumstances. In Yu’s case, he was unable to secure a flight home to China: “It’s extremely hard to get tickets,” he explains. This fall, he plans to begin graduate studies at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena.
Yu, who is taking sculpture and printmaking classes this semester, is unable to use studio space at Occidental because most College facilities have been shuttered since remote learning began. “It’s really strange to make art outside of the studio,” says Yu. Art projects are small-scale efforts that he can work on in his dorm room.
As for a typical day as the semester winds down, Yu adds, “Some of the time I chat with my friends, and the rest of the time I do my homework and read.” He sets aside an hour for exercise, including yoga, pushups, and abdominal workouts.
When he leaves his room, Yu dons a mask—as is required in Los Angeles. Because he is a Chinese national, the Chinese consulate delivered him a package with 20 surgical masks, an N-95 mask, sanitizing wipes, and antibiotics.
Also remaining on campus is Max Peng ’20, who was planning to stay in Los Angeles rather than risk going home to Nanjing, China, and not be able to return to the United States because of federal travel bans. After Peng served an internship for a finance company in Rancho Cucamonga last summer, the company said it would give him a full-time job.
But for now, there is a hiring freeze, and Peng’s immediate future is unclear. Peng spends his days walking to the Marketplace for meals (which he carries back to his room) and running in the surrounding neighborhood. “It’s so I can get some fresh air, because I feel claustrophobic in my room,” he says. “Other than that, I don’t really go off campus. There’s really no reason to, and I want to keep things safe by not going out.”
Group language major Darla Howell ’20 enjoyed tutoring schoolchildren in Northeast Los Angeles through an education course and was looking forward to conducting theater workshops at local elementary schools after spring break. Having helped organize Occidental’s Black Graduation since her sophomore year, she was anticipating her own cultural celebration in May. COVID-19 erased all those plans.
The pandemic poses other challenges for Howell, who grew up in Canoga Park, less than 30 miles from the College. While attending Oxy, her mother moved to Las Vegas and downsized her living space. Howell and her two college-age siblings are squeezed into a two-bedroom home; Howell sleeps in her mom’s office on a pull-out couch. “My mom was empty-nested, and then all of a sudden we’re back at home,” Howell says. “I’m the youngest kid again—the baby. It’s frustrating for all of us.”
Howell was among a group of 17 Oxy students who visited China in summer 2018 as the capstone of a contemporary Chinese history course. She also has been treasurer of the Black Student Alliance and has been active in Oxy’s MLK Day of Service, which drew a record number of participants in January. This year she also volunteered with Girls on the Run, an organization that empowers preteen girls by teaching life skills through running.
While she has communicated with many of her friends via FaceTime and Instagram since leaving campus, “They’re just very sad conversations,” she says. “Most of us aren’t really doing that well.”
It’s not all bad news these days: Howell was recently awarded a Fulbright Scholarship in Taiwan, and is in the process of deciding whether to accept that or a writing and speaking fellowship from NYU Shanghai. “I don’t know if I want to be traveling internationally right now,” she admits.
Baxter Montgomery ’20, an economics major from Houston, worries that he’ll never see his friends again. After word broke that the year was done, “Everybody had the realization that it’s over,” says Montgomery, who knocked on doors in Missouri for U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill’s reelection efforts as a Campaign Semester participant in 2018. The harsh reality of the moment created a sudden aura of kindness among all students.
“It’s not the best thing to do during a pandemic, but people were a lot more open to hanging out,” says Montgomery, who even made the 1,500-mile drive home in a caravan with classmate Clay Pollock ’20. “They were kind of in that mood of, ‘Let’s try to make these days and hours special, and have something good to remember each other by.’”
Back in Houston, Montgomery and his younger siblings —one who attends Tulane, the other a student at Clark—are all completing their semester’s studies online. During his time at Oxy, “the main thing on your mind is doing schoolwork,” he says. “Back home, it’s a million different things. There are always chores, and cooking for myself is a big adjustment.” Looking ahead, Montgomery will attend law school at Texas Tech this fall—assuming there will be a fall semester.
Few students understand the dangers of the novel coronavirus better than Gianna Zinnen, the daughter of a Denver lung doctor. Restaurants and bars in the city have been closed during the pandemic. While masks are recommended but not mandatory, she, her sister, and their father wear the coverings as a matter of course.
When she’s not completing her coursework online, Zinnen, a biology major, keeps busy by walking, running, and bicycling. She was skiing with friends in Colorado over spring break when news broke that Oxy was closing. She quickly took stock of her losses.
“A lot of my classes are lab-based, and I was also taking a ballet course, which obviously is not happening as it was,” says Zinnen, who studied abroad in Buenos Aires her junior year. “I was also supposed to present my honor thesis, and that got washed away.”
It’s a common refrain among the Class of 2020. “I’m going to miss the slow wrap-up to things, where you have those conversations with folks about what they want to do with their lives,” Mucher says. “There are so many people who I didn’t get to say goodbye to or have those conversations with.”
Wharry and classmates have developed a bent sense of humor about unfolding events. At the end of most days, they send texts—“captain’s logs” in their parlance—that summarize the mundane ways in which they are spending their time in self-quarantine. Entries are everything from pithy to uproarious: “went on a run,” “ate cereal for lunch,” “had an existential crisis nap in the middle of the afternoon.”
The sting of recent events, in spite of the balm of humor, isn’t so easily vanquished for Wharry: “A lot of my senior year was getting through all-nighters by visualizing the act of walking across a stage and getting the diploma handed to me, and seeing my name on a program. It hurts a lot.”
For all the milestones disrupted by the coronavirus, it’s the everyday moments of campus life that many students miss the most: Before the coronavirus, Wharry recalls many seniors considering the thought of class reunions as “dorky.” Now, she says, “It’s going to be so emotional and so profound because we’ve all had such an absolutely wild end to our Oxy career.”
Faught wrote “The Campaign for Community” in the Fall 2019 issue.