Graduation in the Time of Corona

By Mark Lester E. Ranchez

Moanalua High School graduate Jenoha Orias poses with his portable frame outside his family’s car. Due to COVID-19, graduation ceremonies are modified this year. Photo by JP Orias.

The graduation season is upon us. Yet it is not cheers we hear in the air but the resounding clamor of disappointment from the many graduates deprived of their commencement due to COVID-19 pandemic. Livestreamed graduation ceremonies have sprouted like mushrooms everywhere, with students attending services through wheeled robots or drive-in. Though admitting the shift to virtual was necessary, graduates and their families were nonetheless devastated learning about the news.

“I was honestly angry, sad, and discouraged,” Alyssa Jacelyn Acob said. She was supposed to graduate at Hawaii Pacific University on May 9, with a double major in Integrated Multimedia and Mass Communication, but was told the event was postponed indefinitely. Graduating for her is a momentous academic achievement. “From the sound of air horns and clappers when your name is called,” she said, “to the mountain of leis you receive when people come to find you in your assigned section, with a grad photo being waved in the air to signal where you are in the sea of people…it is what everyone works hard for and looks forward to.”

For Krishna Taroc, finishing her bachelor’s degree in Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of Hawaii Manoa, it was a shock she felt. For her virtual graduation seemed unrealistic. “I was praying that somehow the pandemic will be over soon so that I’d be able to walk the line,” she said, noting that walking through the graduation ceremony is both “an honor and pride.” College graduation, especially among Filipino households, is given great importance because “not many of us are given the chance to go to university and to be one of those who can finish school.”

This sentiment is shared by high-school twins Christine and Christian Alonzo of Maui High School, who said that “coming from a Filipino family, graduation is a nice way to show that all of our hard work did pay off.” They added that high school graduation is particularly important to teen graduates as it will give them “the time and space to celebrate 13-plus years of education” for the first time. But for Vea Aubrey Bumatay, graduating with an associate’s degree in Liberal Arts with a focus on Medical Assisting at Kapiolani Community College, it meant she could accomplish anything. “Two of my brothers were not able to graduate” she said, “so being the last sibling, it meant great importance that I walk down the line.”

Kenny Domingo Quibilan, a graduate student at the UH Manoa with a master’s degree in Educational Administration, also believes in the value of graduation ceremonies. He said they are “not just for the graduates but also for the families.” From a young age Quibilan’s family had always instilled in him the importance of education. For his family and many Filipinos, “getting an education means a better opportunity; therefore, having a ceremony is not just for me but it’s also for them and acknowledging the hard work they put in to raising the graduate.” Virtual commencement, then, did not make sense. “If I can’t physically be there and have my family there screaming my name,” he said, “then I don’t know what is the point of a virtual graduation.”

For the FilGrad Manoa, a student-led organization recognizing Filipino American graduates at UH Manoa, the hype mentality towards this life ritual is innate. “As Filipinxs, we come from a collectivist culture,” they said—“when one eats, we all eat; when one wins, we all win.” Each year the FilGrad recognition ceremony gives the community a special way to celebrate how far “our Filipinx community here in Hawaiʻi has come since our first waves of migration.”

Indeed, in a letter sent to all UH graduates, UH President David Lassner says that “commencement is one of the most time-honored traditions in our society… [that] unites us across age, gender, ethnicity and personal background…mark[ing] the end of one period of our lives and the beginning of the next.” Though he believes that “even in the midst of this present crisis, every student who graduates…should be very proud of everything that they have accomplished. Nothing should eclipse the feelings of well-earned pride of our graduates and everyone who has worked hard to help them achieve this important goal.”

More than 8,600 UH undergraduate degrees, graduate degrees and certificates were virtually awarded this spring, with graduates given the option to participate in the next semester or May 2021’s commencement ceremony.

Despite the disheartening change, graduates are still hopeful of the future. “There’s now a lot of uncertainty especially for our new graduates when it comes to the economy and finding a job,” said Quibilan, “but we have been through hard times before and we will get through this uncertainty together as a community again.” As for Bumatay, challenges today will only make her stronger for tomorrow. “I just hope that in the future everything will become brighter and will make me see the bigger picture of the struggles I’m going through,” she said.

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