You couldn’t have asked for better weather for a graduation weekend.
The sun had already lit up my room by the time I woke up on Saturday morning, and I could tell it was going to be a bright, warm day—a rarity for early May in Michigan.
There wouldn’t be a formal commencement this year, of course; how could you gather the thousands of new University of Michigan graduates and all their family and friends during a global pandemic?
When the pandemic hit Michigan, everything began to feel uncertain and in flux, and it didn’t surprise me when, on March 13, our administration canceled graduation just a few days after moving classes online. I hadn’t thought much about graduation up to that point.
Still, waking up to sunshine on May 2, a day I should have been gathering with all the friends I’d made over the past four years, hurt a bit. But my roommates and I were determined not to waste the nice day, so we planned some substitute activities: a virtual, socially distanced graduation appropriate for our strange and unprecedented times.
When classes were moved online in March, I decided to stay in the off-campus house I shared with 10 other friends. Some of my roommates had gone home, but eight of us were still here, and we had a big front yard at our disposal. We put on our caps and gowns, ate brunch and drank mimosas together outside, and decorated the sidewalk in front of our house in blue and yellow chalk.
By 11:30 a.m., though, we’d done all the activities we’d planned, and we found ourselves looking ahead at a very long, empty graduation day. That’s when it really hit me. I was completing college, probably the biggest accomplishment of my life so far, and I was graduating into a crumbling world.
But pandemic or not, it was our graduation day, and we still wanted to make good use of the sunshine. So we pulled out the huge speaker previously used for football game tailgates in the fall, and started dancing on our lawn.
As we screamed the lyrics to the songs that had gotten us through the last four years, the hours began to fly by. Cars honked at us and passersby shouted words of congratulations. We ate the fancy cheeses one of my roommates had bought on an essential-goods run to Costco, and cut into the ornate football-themed cake another roommate’s sister had made for us. We danced and we celebrated, because what else is there to do on the day you would have been graduating college?
In the evening, sunburned and exhausted, we went into our house for a celebratory Zoom call organized by our moms. Since September, my roommates and I had been planning to have a graduation party so all our families could gather to celebrate the weekend together. When we shifted to online learning in March and commencement was canceled a few days later, it wasn’t even a conversation—we just stopped planning the party.
But our mothers thought we should still have some kind of celebration, so they banded together and planned a Zoom graduation for us. They pulled out all the stops—my friend Lucie’s mom even emailed Al Gore, who had been chosen as our class’s commencement speaker, to see if he could attend our event.
“Unfortunately, Mr. Gore will be unable to participate at this time,” his communications team wrote in response. “He has recorded a speech for [the] University of Michigan for this year’s commencement and we hope you all are able to check it out!”
Although Al Gore couldn’t join us, all of my roommates and myself—the ones still in Ann Arbor and the ones who’d gone home—logged on to the call to see all of our parents’ faces in their own little squares. My friend Lillie’s brother read our names off a PowerPoint document, and each of our parents went around and made a toast.
When it was time for my friend Amanda’s mom, Erica, to speak, she recalled dropping Amanda off in Ann Arbor before her freshman year. She said Amanda had been so brave throughout the move-in process, but when Amanda pulled away after giving her a final hug, she saw that she was sobbing.
“She said, ‘Mom, I’m not worried about anything except meeting the right people,’” Erica told us. “‘I don’t care if my friends have two heads, I want them to be smart and kind…and easygoing people, and that’s all I want out of my life here at school.’ And I think she got what she wanted out of that part of her experience.”
Amanda and I, still together on our couch in Ann Arbor, turned to each other. We both had tears rolling down our cheeks, and we laughed as we wiped them away. We had certainly gotten what we wanted out of this experience.
As I scrolled through Instagram and Facebook later, I saw pictures of friends next to homemade yard signs and videos of parents reading names off scrolls as their kids walked across their yard. People had dressed up, donned their caps and gowns, or put on their favorite Michigan T-shirts. People were smiling.
The University of Michigan has told us that they’d like to plan an in-person ceremony for 2020 graduates sometime next spring. And who knows? Maybe we will reunite on campus next year. Even if we don’t, though, we still got this day—each person celebrating in their own way, a memory that will tie us together for the rest of our lives. It wasn’t the ceremony anyone in the class of 2020 thought we’d have. But it was a sunny day, at least here in Michigan, and we were all together, in some sense of the word. And we had something to celebrate—a little bit of levity to carry us through the next few months.
At the end of the night, as the sun dipped below the trees outside our window, I got on another Zoom call, this time only with my six closest friends. Most of us had met in the first weeks of freshman year. Lillie had made a montage of all the silly pictures we’d taken and Snapchats we’d screenshotted throughout college, and we watched it together and laughed until we cried.
We were spread out between Michigan, New Jersey, and North Carolina, but it felt like we were ending the day all together in our beloved but grimy living room in Ann Arbor, just like we had for the last four years. Just like we were supposed to.
All things considered, it was a good day.
Maya Goldman, a 2020 graduate of the University of Michigan, is a former editor in chief of the Michigan Daily.
Originally Appeared on Vogue