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Incoming first-year students experience two major milestones amid COVID-19

Anna Rios, a first-year nursing major, celebrates graduating high school during a pandemic at the Utah State Capitol July 31st. Even though things were different, they were able to have closure with the help of their family, according to Rios. (Photo Courtesy: Anna Rios)

In the 150 days since the World Health Organization declared the Covid-19 a global pandemic, major life events have continued. These could be birthdays, weddings or graduating high school.

For incoming first-year students, high school graduation was virtual — often accompanied with a drive-thru parade to get their diploma. As the Fall semester begins, these students will experience a second life milestone in the middle of a pandemic: Going to college.

These important events during the COVID-19 pandemic can be overwhelming, they said.

“Getting my diploma took about five minutes,” said Olivia Tourangeau, a first-year at Westminster College planning to major in neuroscience. “At first, [it] seemed very anticlimactic because at the beginning of the year, I had so many expectations.”

Tourangeau said her graduation was held on July 31 and helped to provide some closure. This sense of closure was needed from several students, whom many didn’t realize their last day spent inside their high schools would officially be the last.

“I think what threw me off the most was the fact that I walked out of school one random Friday in March, not knowing that was it,” said Taeden Anderson, an incoming first-year English major.

However, these unexpected changes — like celebrating graduations via car parades — has taught crucial life lessons, according to some students.

“The pandemic radically changed my high school experience,” Anderson said. “But not necessarily for the worse. Switching to online school provided me with some very important lessons – it taught me adaptability, how life never meets your expectations but to make the most out of what you have.”

It also taught them about accountability — with online school often requiring personal responsibility to get work done, according to Anderson.

However, this unexpected version of graduation negatively affected families.

“I was sad I wasn’t able to have a typical graduation ceremony,” said Anna Rios, a first-year nursing major. “My family helped me have a special day even though it was unconventional.”

One of the worst aspects, Rios said, was missing out on the opportunity for her grandfather to see her graduate high school. Her grandfather, she said, has several health difficulties that could’ve impacted his attendance.

“His goal has always been to live long enough to watch me walk across the stage and get my diploma,” Rios said. “He was very disappointed that he could not have that experience, but we joked that he just has to stick around another four years.”

Although the first day of classes at Westminster will be unconventional compared to the past, students said it brings elicits both an exciting and nervous feeling.

“I think it is a very scary time to be going out into the world and starting a new chapter in life,” said Olivia Tourangeau. “When I was still a senior in high school holding on to the hope that we would go back, I was very frustrated and disappointed. Now that part of my life is over.”

Some students say they won’t even get to experience the milestone of moving out, as many already left their families’ homes because of work, hoping to prevent the spread of the virus.

“Most of the people in my household are immuno-compromised and would likely pass away if they contracted the virus,” said Anna Rios. “I was scared I would come into contact with COVID-19 at my work and bring it home to my family. I decided to move out in April even though I was still in school and had just turned 18 in February.”

While being fearful over her family’s health in addition to paying rent, she was alone in self-quarantine, according to Rios.

First-year students are among Generation Z — the cohort who grew up post 9/11, during the economic recession of 2008, mass shootings, school shootings and a global pandemic. With all of these crises they experienced at a young age, students say their generation could bring positive change to the world.

“The world has never been perfect,” Anderson said. “No matter what generation you’re from, or time you’ve lived in, there’s always going to be some crisis or world event that emphatically shapes the person you become. Gen Z in particular is a very accepting and a reform-minded generation, and I think that we’re going to be the generation that does everything it can to improve the world for the better.”

Students say because of these circumstances, Generation Z is more prepared as adults to experience future crises.

“I feel as though all generations have had their fair share of trials,” said Anna Rios. “I am
grateful that growing up, life hasn’t been smooth sailing because I feel like I will be more
prepared for situations as an adult in the real world. I also feel more prepared to help my future children as they face difficulties in life.”

Although experiences cannot be compared between generations like Baby Boomers and Generation Z — some things are different, according to students.

“I think that Generation Z is going to make an impact in the future because of what they
are already doing right now,” said Olivia Tourangeau. “It’s like Generation Z is the first
generation to be fed up with being told that they are too young to make a change.”

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Cat Taylor is a junior communication major with a minor in art. For a year and a half, she worked as a communication coordinator for the Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion where she co-created the social media campaign, “We Are Westminster” that discussed unconscious bias. In her free time, she can be seen drawing, playing video games and drinking a significant amount of coffee.

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