COVID, College, and Graduation

By Julia Meeker

When my mother told me that the first time she met my father was in the same college dining hall I ate in many times before, my stomach clenched.

Not only because I had, perhaps, taken too much advantage of its all-you-can-eat format, but also because I had been alone every single time I had eaten there.

My parents always told me that I would meet so many people at college, and that I would be able to experience so many new things.

I like to think of myself as being able to get along with most personalities, but going up and introducing myself to anyone new is a monumental achievement for someone like me.

COVID-19 made the college experience both more difficult — and easier.

From the time I enrolled at Texas Tech, I assumed that I would walk across the stage four years later just like everyone else.

Instead, I ended up spending my last two semesters of college in my little brother’s bedroom

with my laptop set on top of a decades-old card table, a tab open to Zoom.

I decided to graduate a semester early — the fall of 2020.

My cap and gown arrived in December of last year.

But rising COVID cases in Lubbock ended hopes for a graduation ceremony — just before the Christmas holidays. My diploma arrived in the mail.

It’s strange to own a cap and gown, hanging forlorn in a closet — too new to toss, too filled with parent pride to not imagine donning one day.

I figured the cap and gown would never be worn, and that my poor parents had wasted far too much money on an outfit that I’d never wear anywhere ever; I felt myself beginning to slide into the territory of self-pity.

Everyone’s university experience will be different, and even though you don’t have to go to all the house parties or football games to have a good time, I sometimes feel that my experience was a bit empty.

Of course, it was no one’s fault but my own that college wasn’t everything I thought it would be.

As winter stripped leaves from the trees in our front lawn, and in between job searches on Monster and Glass Door, I reflected on how I hadn’t ventured outside a 20-mile bubble since my arrival from Spain nearly a year before.

My semester abroad in Spain — planned for Spring 2020 — lasted six weeks. I flew home to DFW Airport on one of the last pre-lockdown flights from Seville.

Deep down I knew how lucky I was; none of my relatives had gotten sick, my parents hadn’t lost their jobs, and we had a roof over our heads.

But I couldn’t say that my college years were the best of my life, as I’m only 21 and have so much more to do before I’m ready to rank my adventures in my twilight years.

There are some things I regret not doing while I was there, but we can never turn back the clock and can only look forward to the future.

When it was announced that there would be a May 2021 graduation for all the 2020 graduates who were not able to be at the original venue due to COVID — and with all of us fully vaccinated and needing a break from the monotony of sheltering together for more than a year, my parents and I decided to go.

There really was no sense of anticipation for me, even though I knew I was going to be able to get away from the house for at least a couple of days. As odd as it seems, the thing I was truly looking forward to was the drive to Lubbock.

As we pulled out of the driveway to start the five-hour trek to West Texas, I only remember that my mind felt oddly blank as we left.

I had always enjoyed the different landscapes we’d see; the big sky, the sloping hills, and mesas that wouldn’t look out of place in a Western.

I spent most of the drive — a passenger for a proud Dad –staring out of the window as the bare cotton fields rolled past, the car’s speed making them appear as angled, neat lines.

The seemingly endless blue sky stretched out forever before my eyes, and I didn’t think much of my coming graduation or what the president of the university would say about the class of 2020 overcoming insurmountable odds or how the spirit of perseverance continues to prevail in young people.

Though the world had been irrevocably changed by the pandemic, you wouldn’t know it by looking at the South Plains of Texas. The cotton fields and wind turbines still stretched far.

I only saw the vast flatness of the Panhandle and my bare future stretched out before me.

As our car pulled into Lubbock and I began to recognize some of its landmarks, I marveled at how everything looked exactly the same as it had when I left the campus almost 18 months earlier. My nervous stomach settled.

It was strange to have a cap and gown sitting in my room unopened for the better part of a year — not knowing if it would ever serve its multi-layered purpose.

Graduation starts in an hour. I felt the rough fabric of the robe sliding over my skin, and wondered if this would be the last time I ever wore something like it.

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Julia Meeker

Julia Meeker

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Recent college graduate, voracious reader, and baking addict