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The week after I graduated high school in June 2016, my best friend and I loaded up her minivan and made the trek to Orono for our freshman orientation. We were 18, and we had all the time in the world ahead of us — 2020 hardly seemed like a real year. As we sat on the football field’s bleachers, surrounded by strangers, listening to speeches and fumbling our way through the Stein Song, it seemed like the next four years would stretch out forever.
Today, those strangers have become friends and coworkers, activists and leaders, student body presidents, and newspaper editors. And today, we may have said goodbye for the last time — two months earlier than we planned.
The coronavirus, COVID-19, has shaken up everyone’s way of life in a matter of weeks, and the students of UMaine are no exception. We found out Wednesday that our classes would shift entirely online and students living on campus would have to leave. For many students, their two months left in Orono turned into less than a week. Choirs, sports teams and clubs had to squeeze in their goodbyes before people left for break. Underclassmen, while disappointed, still get to come back to town in the fall and continue business as usual. The class of 2020 won’t have that chance.
None of us wanted to go out like this. We didn’t want to say goodbye so soon. We wanted to walk across the stage at Alfond Arena and hug our families afterward.
We wanted one more spring at the campus we’ve called home for the past four years — spreading out blankets on the mall to do our homework in the sunshine, stringing up hammocks outside the dorms, planting flower beds on Maine Day, opening classroom windows wide.
This isn’t how our senior year was meant to end. But we took our time to cry, and then in true UMaine fashion, we organized.
One senior, Sophia Palangas, started a small Facebook event to gather her friends together for one last goodbye. The plan was to gather on the steps of Fogler Library and hand out some printed-off diplomas. The idea caught on fast, and by this morning, more than 400 people had marked that they would attend.
If there’s one thing our class is great at, it’s making the most of a tough situation. The ceremony, which we collectively dubbed “Coronamencement,” only lasted about an hour, but it will mean so much to us forever.
Our class is massive. When we started college, we were UMaine’s largest incoming class with 2,300 students. We don’t all know each other — we’d need way more than four years for that — but that doesn’t matter. Today, we were all friends. Huddled in the Memorial Union, where we had to relocate because of the rain, we danced and cried and shared memories. One of our local bands, Midnight Breakfast, fronted by senior Jennifer Shevlin-Fernandes, played music to cheer us up. I fell back in with old friends like nothing had ever happened. We wrote our names on index cards, torn in quarters so that everyone could have one, to be read off as we accepted our certificates.
We lined up, snaking through the entire first floor of the Union, some decked out in cardboard caps and bathrobes, and others in their best dresses and suits. When it was my turn, I bumped elbows with Robert Dana, our dean of students — because handshakes are a no-go — and got my “degree,” hot off the presses.
At the bottom, it reads: “Your dedication and commitment to the community has not gone unrecognized. May time provide you the closure you deserve.”
No one knows yet whether our official commencement will be canceled. Ultimately, though, it’s not the ceremony that matters. It’s about celebrating our accomplishments and the community we’ve built, and by those standards, our homemade graduation was more than enough.
Hailey Bryant is a part-time digital editor with the Bangor Daily News.