Seniors Are Having Prom And Graduation Online, But It Can't Replace The Real Thing

'Nothing is the same': Students sound off on missing pivotal moments due to the coronavirus pandemic

By De Elizabeth

As the world continues to fight the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, high schools and college campuses across the United States have completely emptied out, with many students finishing the remainder of the academic year online. At least 44 states have ordered or recommended that schools stay closed for the rest of the 2019-2020 school year, and millions of college students have been forced to move back home.

The transition to online learning and general fear surrounding the coronavirus pandemic is undoubtedly impacting all students, but for many high school and college seniors, the abrupt end to the school year has been especially emotional. With commencement ceremonies, proms, and other events postponed or canceled indefinitely, some students are finding themselves without a chance to reflect upon their accomplishments, say goodbye to teachers and friends, or obtain closure after formative periods in their lives.

But some students are finding alternative ways to memorialize their senior years — without ever leaving their bedrooms. Virtual proms and Zoom graduation ceremonies have become increasingly popular as stay-at-home orders continue, but many students are finding that, while better than nothing, an online celebration can’t exactly replace the real thing.

MTV News spoke with several students to learn what it feels like to have your high school or college senior year come to an end in a way you never expected. Despite varying educational passions and career goals, all of the students echo a similar disappointment, while mourning the chapter they never got to finish.

Brian Luce

Caroline Luce is an 18-year-old senior at Santa Barbara High School in California. She has been taking online classes since her school shut down in March. Her senior prom was canceled, and her school’s senior awards night will be held virtually, with graduation planned for an undetermined later date. She is headed to California State University, Northridge, in the fall, where she intends to major in Music Industry Studies.

On finding ways to still celebrate prom: “My best friend and I got the idea to have our own prom together. We got dressed up, had a photo shoot on the beach, made our own food, and ate it in an open field. We called it the ‘Pandemic Prom.’ We were wearing masks for most of it. I had been waiting two years to wear my prom dress; I found it online during my sophomore year. I don’t know when I’ll be able to wear it again.”

On the impact of walking across the stage to get your diploma and what it means to lose that moment: “I transferred to Santa Barbara mid-junior year and I didn't have the best year. I was even considering doing an independent study for my senior year. But I really wanted to just walk across that stage, because I’m really proud of myself. High school wasn’t the best time of my life, but I thought it would be really great to celebrate making it to the end. It’s just really disappointing.”

On the uncertainty of starting college during a pandemic: “I’ve been really looking forward to college. I was excited to be in a new environment, meet new people, and study something I’m genuinely interested in. And now I might have to do some of it online, while paying thousands of dollars. Some of my friends are considering taking a gap year because paying so much for online classes just doesn’t seem worth it.”

Roger Castillo

Nick Robinson is a 22-year-old senior at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont, where he is a film major. His campus closed while he was home in Connecticut for spring break; he has not yet been able to return to his dorm to retrieve his belongings. His commencement will be held online, with hopes of an in-person ceremony later in the year. His senior film showcase, which was slated to be a red-carpet event in a large theater, has been moved online, as well.

On the unique sentimentality of graduation: “I’ve graduated twice now: eighth grade and high school. There’s something about being together with everybody for the last time, and knowing it’s the last time, and just reveling in this achievement that’s really special. And to not have that, I don’t know if I feel sad about it yet, but it’s definitely weird. It’s easy to take graduation for granted until you don’t have it.”

On not getting to celebrate in person with his film classmates: “There’s such an experience about seeing movies in the theater, with the surround sound and the big images on screen; watching it on a laptop doesn’t really compare. I’m glad we’re still having the showcase even if it’s online, because it would feel completely wrong not to have it at all, but it’s not the same. Nothing is the same.”

On the pervasive sadness that so many seniors are feeling right now: “There are so many people I didn’t say goodbye to, people I just don’t expect to see again. It’s a spooky feeling. There’s so much that I did for the last time — without ever realizing it was the last time.”

Courtesy Kelly Dankese

Kelly Dankese is a 22-year-old senior at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, where she is studying business administration. Her school is planning an online graduation, with the intention of holding a traditional ceremony in the future. Dankese is also a member of the Alpha Sigma Tau sorority and was planning on attending many important end-of-year events. They have all been canceled or moved online. After graduation, Dankese intends to work at Liberty Mutual as an associate accountant.

On the lack of closure: “Each day it seems like there’s a new loss I’m mourning. It’s a strange feeling, like you’re supposed to be somewhere else. We’re having an online graduation, and my friends and I are planning a virtual brunch earlier in the day. But I feel really sad about it. It’s anticlimactic. I don’t feel like I’m going to be officially done with school in a week. I don’t feel like I’m getting ready for graduation.”

On finding replacements for year-end events: “Our sorority would typically have a retreat; it’s like a giant sleepover where everyone shares memories, and you officially become an alumni. You have all these deep connections with everyone, and you get to say your formal goodbyes. The seniors have been really emotional about losing this. We’re going to do something online, but there’s been a ton of debate around how exactly to best capture it. No one really knows.”

On how she tried to salvage the night of her sorority formal, after it was canceled: “We all got on Zoom that night to keep each other company and try to make the most of it. We reminisced, we talked about things we did in the past, and the things we didn’t get to do this year. It was fun to catch up and build some kind of memory to look back on, but online calls are always weird afterwards. It’s just never what you expect.”

On the fear of graduating into an economic recession: “It’s a lot of anxiety to deal with. It’s hard to process all of it, and just feeling like you don’t know how anything is going to look. I’m graduating college when the job market is potentially the worst. I figured out my post-graduation work situation back in October. So I’ve had a really solid plan set for months — but here I am at the end of all of this, and I just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Courtesy Helena LaCortiglia

Helena LaCortiglia is an 18-year-old senior at Georgetown High School in Massachusetts. Her school’s graduation and prom have been postponed, with hopes of having them this summer. She is planning on attending North Shore Community College in the fall.

On having a supportive administration: “We have the most amazing superintendent ever. Her name is Carol Jacobs, and she’s been determined to make sure we have the best possible senior year. Our graduation is delayed, but we’re planning on having a real, in-person graduation ceremony in August, or later if needed.”

On waiting for an in-person graduation ceremony: “I feel like my entire high school career was brought to an end way more abruptly than I would have liked. I have two older sisters, and I watched them graduate, so I've been excited to walk across the stage wearing my cap and gown for six years now. That's what we've always been working towards. It hurts to not be able to do that on time. But I'd rather have a delayed graduation than an online one, because I want that ending. I want that closure. And I definitely want to see my friends one last time before all go to college.”

On the connections she’s built at school: “I've lived in Georgetown my entire life, from preschool to senior year, so I’ve quite literally grown up alongside every single person in this school. I’ve made so many friends along the way. It’s such a small school; everyone knows each other. So to have it all come to an end this way, it hurts. And it just doesn’t feel real.”

Giobensky Vildor

Arion McCullough is a 22-year-old senior at the historically Black Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama. She is majoring in Marketing and Broadcast Journalism, and will begin working with Discover Financial Services in August. Her graduation ceremony has been postponed until July at the earliest.

On forging ahead without a commencement ceremony: “If we don't have a graduation by December, I don't think I would return in 2021 for a ceremony — just because I'll be in a whole new phase of life. A graduation would be nice, but I feel like I’ll have moved on by then.”

On missing other traditions: “I was in charge of planning a banquet at school, and that got canceled. Our school has an annual tradition of midnight pancakes, where some alumni return to make pancakes and hash browns for students outside of the freshman dorms. My friends and I were going to go all out for the last week of school — brunches, scrapbook parties, a senior trip. All of that has been canceled. It feels really sad to not be able to do that for the last time.”

On how she’s staying in touch with friends: “We have a Snapchat group, and we started making daily vlogs to share with one another. Every day, we’ll be like, ‘Hey, I’m making breakfast,’ and then show each other our smoothies, or how we do our hair. And my school has been doing a lot of things online to keep people engaged; students would show off their houses and pets for ‘OU Cribs.’”

On the lingering regrets: “I feel like we should have done everything earlier in the school year; we shouldn’t have put it off. I literally had to pack three months’ worth of memories into five days. I didn’t even get to say thank you to some of the professors that I really cherished. I wish I spent more time with the people I care about. It’s sad, and frustrating.”

Courtesy Jahz Rodgers

Jahz Rodgers is an 18-year-old senior at the High School of Visual and Performing Arts in Houston, Texas, where she is concentrating on vocal performance. Her school is exploring alternative plans for graduation, and the benefit concert she was working towards has been canceled. In lieu of a traditional prom, her school held a virtual event with music on the night that the dance was supposed to take place. Rodgers’s college plans are currently undecided. 

On the uncertainty of graduation: “This is my senior year, we’re supposed to have graduation, and I’m supposed to get ready for my future. And for me, when things don’t go according to plan, it can make me feel very anxious. I feel like I’m just waiting around to find out what’s going to happen.”

On attending prom from her bedroom: “To be honest, I signed online for less than a minute. The energy was weird and upsetting; it just wasn’t supposed to be this way. I had been so excited for prom. I got my prom dress two weeks before we went on spring break, and I felt like, ‘Oh my gosh, I finally found my dress. I can’t wait to show it off.’ And then this happened.”

On having her senior year end on this note: “I don’t even know if I’d say that I’m coping at all. When we left school, we were all just like, ‘OK, see you in a week or two.’ I don’t know if I’ll see some of my classmates again. There were all these people I had just grown so accustomed to seeing every day, who I built relationships with. It just feels like everything is over; it’s been really sad to think about.”

On tending to her own emotional needs while staying connected: “I keep thinking that I should try to FaceTime my friends more, because texting isn’t really the same as talking to them or seeing them on a screen. I love my friends, but at the same time, I feel like I should be alone sometimes too — just to clear my head.”

Kristopher Lassiter

Justin Johnson is a 22-year-old senior at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, where he is majoring in Fashion Merchandising with a minor in General Business. His in-person graduation has been postponed until December, with a virtual ceremony taking place in May. He is unsure of his post-graduation plans, as the internship he was previously offered has since been rescinded due to the pandemic. 

On the transition to online learning: “In the beginning, I thought that I would enjoy it more because I'm able to do my work in my room, and can be in my own environment. But as time went on, I felt like it was kind of depressing. You don’t really have the motivation to get up and do your work, and you don’t really feel like doing anything. You just feel kind of lost and think, Is this really worth it? Do I really want to log onto my computer today and do work? But in the end, you have to keep doing it.”

On having a virtual graduation instead of an IRL one:  “When you walk across the stage, there’s a feeling of relief. You put all this work into these four years, and that’s your moment. I feel like they’re taking my moment away. I don’t have that celebration aspect of walking across the stage and receiving my diploma; having a graduation online just kind of downplays it to me. I don’t feel as excited as I would be if it were a real graduation.”

On finishing college during a pandemic: “I've always been the type of person where if I have a goal, I’m going to accomplish it by any means necessary. And it feels like I don’t have a goal right now because I can’t apply for the jobs that I want; it seems like nobody’s hiring anymore. Especially with internships; I feel like they’re really important in the fashion industry, by giving experience and building those connections. Graduating college in the midst of all of this is really overwhelming.”

On advice for his fellow students: “Try to remain positive throughout this time. Surround yourself with positive energy, and for everyone who is graduating, I’d encourage you all to still get dressed up, still put on your cap and gown, even if you’re in your room. Because at the end of the day, you still made that accomplishment. It needs to be acknowledged somehow.”