CNU graduates reflect on how pandemic shaped their college experience

Graduation season is in full swing at colleges and universities. It is a little more special for this year’s class.

Four years ago, many were high school seniors gearing up for prom, their final high school sports seasons and the chance to walk across the stage in their caps and gowns. Most of those plans fell through as the pandemic shut down schools and many students were left waving at neighbors in drive-by parades or watching Zoom celebrations instead.

Three students at Christopher Newport University talked about their excitement to walk across the stage Saturday:

Joining the front lines as an EMT

Reuben Laryea was home during spring break when schools announced the closure.

“We thought we’d be back to school in a week,” Laryea said, “and the week turned into never coming back.”

His biggest disappointment was not being around his friends during the last few weeks of high school.

“That part I was not too happy about.”

He was also upset at not finishing soccer season — he was captain and had big plans for the team.

For graduation, his school in Stafford County brought students in five at a time for a socially distanced ceremony. Everyone wore masks except during photos, then rushed out so the next group could enter.

“I was still happy to be able to have my family around to see me walk,” said Laryea.

Laryea was bored in the weeks after graduation. Because he wanted to be a doctor, he got his EMT license and joined the front lines fighting the virus. He went on several calls and took the extra precautions of wiping down the ambulance after each use; he and his colleagues masked up and socially distanced at the fire station.

That fall, half of his classes at CNU were online. Small classes were held in large auditoriums so students could spread out. They weren’t allowed to visit dorms in which they didn’t live.

“You got really close with your hallmates,” he said.

Days away from his college graduation, Laryea is excited.

“It was a lot of hard work, especially for seniors who persevered through COVID for the first two years,” said the neuroscience major.

He believes the experience made his class more resilient.

Laryea, 21, joined the Air Force and has been commissioned as a second lieutenant. He’s headed to Eastern Virginia Medical School in the fall.


Making friends, creating memories

Kyle Greber remembers where he was when he found out school was closing because of COVID — in the middle of a conditioning practice with his volleyball team.

“We were just so happy we didn’t have to run anymore,” Greber, 22, joked this week.

But then everyone realized the situation was serious.

“Things started to get really weird.”

He remembers the fast food chain where he worked delivering free food to hospitals. He had to cancel his 18th birthday party. For his Germantown, Maryland, graduation, his high school hosted a Zoom webinar as pictures flashed on the screen and names were announced.

“You were on TV for like five seconds.”

But there were three other graduates in his neighborhood. They held a ceremony, walking along their street to a cul-de-sac. They donned caps and gowns and took pictures with their families.

But the pandemic created unique memories at CNU. In those first weeks on campus, Greber and other freshmen waited until their dorms’ resident assistants went to sleep before sneaking out to the Great Lawn to make new friends — sitting just 3 feet apart, “because we were rebels.”

“We’d bring blankets and blast music,” he said. “And honestly, I think it made our class really close … We all know each other because of freshman year.”

Greber, who majored in business, leadership and American studies, served on the senior class alumni committee and helped plan graduation.

“Seeing it all come together,” he said, “it’s super exciting.”

He said the pandemic taught him not to take anything for granted. He’s just happy to share Saturday with friends and family.

Greber begins a job at Capital One’s headquarters in Washington this summer.


‘Impossible to forget’

As a high school senior, Amanda Wilfong was paying attention to the news. She watched COVID spread worldwide in January and February, wondering if it would reach Loudoun County. Then someone in her county contracted the virus and the calls came that schools — and just about everything else — would close.

Many people thought after a couple of weeks, everything would return to normal; Wilfong said she didn’t.

“I knew it was over,” she said. “I remember watching it from afar and I think I knew it wouldn’t be open and shut in two weeks.”

Instead of prom, her school held a spirit day and students dressed up at home and took photos. Her spring theater production was canceled. Her graduation was a live stream she and her family watched on TV at home.

“It was essentially like a big PowerPoint going through the names and the photos,” said Wilfong, 22.

Her school set aside slots on three days for small groups of graduates to come in and walk across the stage with their families watching. She felt disheartened because of what her class missed. She had to accept over the summer that her college experience would be different than her expectations.

“That was a bit of a hard pill to swallow at the beginning.”

After moving in for her freshman year, she was overwhelmed with gratitude. Many of her friends attended bigger schools and spent their first semesters at home, attending classes online. She attended some classes online and participated in socially distanced activities. Wilfong said expectations were so low that any activity or “normal” experience felt special.

Crossing the stage at graduation Saturday may not be a big deal to some, she said. But it’s a little more exciting for her class because many hadn’t “done the whole song and dance” before.

After graduation, Wilfong, a marketing major, is moving to Richmond for a job with Costar Realty Group.

The pandemic has become a defining characteristic of her class — referenced in speeches or activities they participate in.

“I feel like it’s impossible to forget because people don’t let us forget.”

Nour Habib,