Graduation at the End of the World

The Classes of 2017 and 2020 compare senior-year notes.

College graduation is a significant milestone. It celebrates the soon-to-be graduates’ achievements, not to mention the support from families and communities that got them there. My name is Amanda Chiu, and I graduated from UC Berkeley in 2017 (back then as Amanda Gee). While each year is different, I participated in most of the classic senior-year milestones. For the class of 2020, however, senior year and graduation looked different. The COVID-19 pandemic shut down the UC Berkeley campus in March 2020, abruptly canceling traditional in-person senior celebrations. I virtually met with Sam Halladay ’20 in 2021 to learn more about his senior year experience.

Sam started his second semester of senior year stressing about his thesis with his faculty advisor. 

Sam was part of UC Berkeley’s first history honors thesis seminar, and everything was already unprecedented. “They told us to give ourselves our own deadlines,” recalled Sam. “And [they were] going to model everyone in the following years after that.” 

“Some people went to the stores and got toilet paper… I went to the library and got all my books for my thesis… that’s how I prepared for the end of the world.”

Most of Sam’s senior thesis experience paralleled my own in 2017: the small seminar camaraderie, the stress of “self-leading” a research project for the first time, the final trim of a forty-plus page essay. After graduation, he planned to work and maybe apply to grad school. 

But on a Monday in March 2020, he got the notice that the campus would close due to COVID-19. His priority that day: run to the library to get any thesis resources he’d need during the shelter-in-place order. “Some people went to the stores and got toilet paper, some people bought all these beans, some people saved up on gas.” Sam laughed. “And I went to the library and got all my books for my thesis. I guess that’s how I prepared for the end of the world.” 

Part of senior year is having your “lasts”. I planned my last trip up the Campanile, sad that I soon would not have free student access, and my last walk by Wheeler Hall, where I had taken most of my English classes. Sam found his lasts suddenly hoisted upon him as the shelter-in-place order lengthened. His Rally Committee meetings were canceled. His last on-campus class was the Chess DeCal that he arrived at only to find it also had been canceled.

All of Sam’s housemates went back home after the shelter-in-place orders. Sam stayed in his Berkeley house. People still didn’t know much about the coronavirus, and Sam didn’t want to endanger his grandmother’s health by going home. That period of isolation, he said, was the hardest part of his senior year. He barely went out, except for the occasional Chipotle run. 

His thesis classmates kept him grounded; they were all trying to finish their papers. Sam took full advantage of having the house to himself by spreading out all his papers and books around the living room. “It looked like I was summoning a demon,” he told me. 

He didn’t, as I did, have to run to the department building to drop off his final thesis; his thesis was turned in via email. He did, however, still print off a copy just for himself as a private celebration of his accomplishment, instead of the typical department celebration or party after a class completes their theses.

When I graduated from Cal, the final month had been crammed with festivities: senior photos in front of Doe Library with friends, a club senior celebration where we all got superlatives (“Most Likely to be Drinking Chai”), the English department graduation at the Greek Theatre. For Sam, there was one graduation moment he had been looking forward to: walking across the stage at his commencement. He had never attended school graduation before and had planned to make it up in college. His brother also graduated from Cal that same year, making the moment even more significant. 

The cancellation of in-person graduation hit Sam hard. “It sucked,” said Sam simply. “I really wanted to walk. It really meant a lot to me and it meant a lot to my family at that time.”

UC Berkeley, though, still did have a graduation ceremony. Cal alum Bjorn Lustic collaborated with current students to build Blockeley, a Minecraft replica of the Cal campus, complete with a Memorial Stadium for graduation ceremonies. UC Berkeley staff joined in on the project. So, on May 15, 2020, Sam watched on Twitch as a Minecraft version of Chancellor Carol Christ came forward to address the class of 2020. 

To both his surprise and joy, the Chancellor quoted from The Fellowship of the Ring, one of Sam’s favorite books. In the scene, Frodo, learning of the evil that threatens Middle Earth, laments to Gandalf, “I wish it need not have happened in my time.”

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” —J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

That quote had been on Sam’s mind the past months. He had written and rewritten it for himself during the initial shelter-in-place isolation. To hear Chancellor Christ quote that same line was almost emotionally overwhelming for Sam. 

The quote is also one of my favorites from The Lord of the Rings series, and it seems an apt description of 2020 for graduating seniors. Closing out your senior year of college already thrusts you out into some adventure in which, to quote Frodo again, there is no simple “there and back again.” Add on top of that a global pandemic that disrupted all your plans, you find yourself in circumstances that you never asked for but now need to bear. But you still can decide what to do with the time that is given to you.

In our Zoom conversation, Sam talked about the afterschool program he worked at this past year and his new job as a substitute teacher. As for other plans, Sam was excited that UC Berkeley would host a 2020 commencement ceremony in August 2021. His new problem: tracking down a graduation gown. 

 


UC Berkeley’s 2020 in-person graduation took place on August 29, 2021, at the Greek Theatre. A recording of the commencement ceremony is available to watch if you would like to celebrate the class of 2020.

Did you know that new grads save on Cal Alumni Association membership? Take full advantage of your alumni status and build your alumni network with valuable discounts, privileges, and benefits.

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