It didn’t immediately hit Unique Walker that her graduation from the University of South Florida would not be happening. When the school transitioned to virtual learning in mid-March for the remainder of the semester, Walker’s final, her immediate focus was on completing her classwork to earn her bachelor’s degree in psychology. Like many students, she thought online classes would be a breeze; the reality, without the ability to interact with professors and classmates, didn’t quite match up.
“When classes turned online, I didn’t really feel worried because online classes are [generally] easier than in class lectures to be honest,” Walker says. “But in some of my classes, I wasn’t doing that well, so that face-to-face connection was lost. Emailing the teachers back and forth was so confusing. I felt like I was bothering them every minute of the day.”
For Bailey Embry, who was in her final semester as an elementary education major at USF, the pandemic meant she wouldn’t get to finish out her internship at Wesley Chapel’s Quail Hollow Elementary School. Her mind immediately went to fifth-graders she saw five days a week.
“I just knew that they were in the same shoes as I was, and I was feeling uneasy, and sad about it,” she says. “I was kind of feeling what my students were feeling as well.”
On April 7, when the official announcement came that spring graduation ceremonies wouldn’t be held, Embry became emotional.
“To be honest, when I found out that my graduation ceremony wasn’t going to happen, I think I cried for a good hour or so,” she says.
Walker says she didn’t really process that graduation was effectively canceled until she finished classes. Commencement was something she had been working toward for 16 years, and as a first-generation college graduate, she would be the first person in her family to walk across a university stage. She says the ceremony’s cancellation affected them as much, if not more, than it did her.
“It’s nice for me, just because I can say I did it, I got it done, I achieved it. But for my family, it’s just way bigger than that,” Walker says. “Especially for my mom. She really felt it when the graduation was canceled.”
Beyond graduation, the pandemic has affected future job plans for both Embry and Walker. Earlier this spring, Embry accepted a fourth-grade math and science teaching position at Cypress Elementary in New Port Richey.
“It was my top [choice] school, and it was the position I wanted,” she says. “Everything was perfect.”
Then, due to state funding cuts, the school’s allocation of positions for new teachers was cut — including the position offered to Embry. She had to start all over in the district’s hiring process and began applying to as many teaching positions as she could. The sudden interruption to her post-grad plans sent graduation itself way down her list of priorities. “I’m kind of just past it,” Embry says. “I just want to get a job and move on, honestly.”
A few weeks after our interview, Embry got good news. A teacher at Cypress Elementary in the position she had been offered was transferring; the spot was officially hers. Embry has already met with the teachers she’ll be working within the fall. “It feels so great and now I can focus on the subjects and curriculum I will be teaching.
Walker had been scheduled to move out of her family’s home and begin renting her own on April 1, but the state stay-at-home order put the kibosh on those plans. She’s early in her job search and is more than a bit wary of looking for employment under the double whammy of an economic crisis and a global health emergency. Despite her fears, she reminds herself — and her fellow 2020 grads — she has to keep pressing forward.
“Keep your head up during this because this time could definitely mess with your mental health,” Walker says. “Still do things in a safe way to keep you going, and [don’t] just give up because of this pandemic. It can’t stop us.”
Even if they don’t get an official ceremony to mark it, Embry adds, this year’s graduates know how far they’ve come.
“I know it’s hard and we waited four years for this day, but I think we’ll make it through. [We] just have to keep our heads held high and be proud of ourselves for what we did.”