The year Madison started college, a cancer diagnosis threatened to derail her educational dreams. Four years later, the St. Jude patient is ready to graduate. Madison, like so many seniors, will not get to experience the pomp and circumstance of commencement because of COVID-19. Yet it will not erase the memories, friendships and knowledge gained in those college years.
When my university announced that it would close March 12 with no set date to reopen, a wave of disappointment swept over me. Like millions of college graduates across the U.S., I had worked so hard to get to this point and felt ready for that next big step. Now, instead of the Class of 2020, we were the Class of COVID-19.
The journey to my senior year had more twists and turns than a backwoods country road. What started as an amazing freshman year in 2017 took a sharp left when I discovered a lump in my neck. That led to a dizzying month of tests and doctors and then finally, a diagnosis: Stage 2 Hodgkins Lymphoma.
My doctors back home recommended one place for me: St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. There, I went through four rounds of chemotherapy and then months of physical and occupational therapy to regain my fine motor skills.
I was determined to go back to school, but my college was 7 hours away, too far for me to keep my regular appointments at St. Jude. That led to another life detour. I found a new college closer to home and St. Jude, but still distant enough to maintain a sense of independence.
At this new college, I found a second home. I majored in fine art, with an emphasis in graphic design. My professors and classmates went above and beyond to help me and embraced my quirks as well as my cancer. I took a position at the student-run art gallery. I had finally found my tribe and hit my stride.
Even with cancer sidelining me for a few months, I was on pace to graduate on time. My senior project was even completed early, but COVID-19 robbed me of the senior show that I had worked so hard to produce.
I am nearly complete with my last semester of classes, which have been moved entirely online.
Commencement was going to be especially meaningful to my mom and dad, because I am the first person in my family to graduate from college. It was going to be meaningful to me, too, because there was a time four years ago when I didn’t know that I would survive to see this moment.
Now, with social distancing in place and large gatherings banned, the actual graduation ceremony won’t take place. I know many college seniors can identify with the sense of loss that comes with not to mark this rite of passage, to come this far on a journey only to be stopped inches short of the finish line.
I’ll never get to walk across that stage or get to enjoy the day with my classmates. I’ll also never see (and hear) my family in the crowd loudly cheering me on or get to proudly move my 2020 tassel to the other side of my cap. I actually don’t even have my graduation attire, another part of the graduation experience lost to COVID-19.
Related: It wasn’t the college graduation Madison was expecting. But how can you really anticipate a surprise 30–car procession cruising by your house, with horns beeping, streamers fluttering, balloons bopping and well-wishers leaning out of windows offering their congrats at 90 decibels?
What I have come to realize over the past two months, though, is that cancer prepared me for this challenge. I am stronger, I have a clear sense of who I am and my purpose in life. That, and I can socially isolate with the best of them (well, not technically with them, but apart).
I consider myself fortunate. Because of cancer, it became second nature for me to do everything the CDC is now recommending to keep COVID-19 at bay. Washing my hands, being a germaphobe, wearing an N95 mask, stocking up on hand sanitizer, not sharing anything. I was doing all of that before it was cool.
I have a small piece of advice to offer my fellow Class of 2020 seniors: Commencement is but one moment in our journey. COVID-19 will never take away our college years, the friendships we forged or the knowledge we gained. From eating cereal at every meal (just kidding, mom and dad!) to the midnight cram sessions in our PJs, we still have the memories of our time spent as young adults navigating the world together.
Not only that, we have so much living still ahead of us. While the world is scary right now, I’m confident we’ll come out of this stronger and wiser, the Class of 2020 ready take this next step into adulthood, together.