Receiving a degree in a pandemic

The end of undergraduate studies. Picture: Shutterstock

The end of undergraduate studies. Picture: Shutterstock

Two months ago, I closed my laptop and stood up in the living room of an AirBnB on the South Coast.

Done.

I smiled, sitting down to join a board game being played with my friends.

Finishing university turned out to be an odd, anti-climatic experience, particularly during a pandemic.

The days of Zoom tutorials, buffering lecture videos and endless emails were over, which was a welcome relief to a new era.

Rounds of congratulations murmured through the room that night, the group of us all finishing up our studies and beginning what felt like the first day of summer holidays.

For five years we had gone through twice-yearly phases of study: begin subjects calmly after a long break, feel the assessment pile on, procrastinate and pursue the final push for exams with long days and nights of learning an entire semester's worth of content, winter or summer break, repeat.

Peppered throughout this structure were part-time jobs, nights out, extended hours with friends and internships or job applications.

The pandemic, obviously like it has for everything else, significantly altered the university experience.

My first three years consisted of professors sternly telling us the merits of attending class in person far outweighed watching lectures online.

Then, as virus variants keep popping up, my last two years were yo-yoing from in-person to online. It undoubtedly became tiring to complete a degree from the screen of a computer, but I feel privileged to have got three years of normality before COVID.

When the pandemic began in 2020 I never imagined it would continue through the remainder of my years at university, yet it was an accepted reality when I shut my laptop that was all I would be getting.

Whatever this strange five-year routine was, submitting my final assignment I knew would break the cycle I had become accustomed to as a student.

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To this point today, it still feels like I am simply on a break from university, working full time during the summer as I relish having no burden of study or assignments.

To ease the minds of my editors, I logically know there is no return to class in February, my career as a journalist is here to stay.

Yet I'm sure many recent graduates such as myself feel a strange limbo and melancholy as we exit the phase of early twenties to mid twenties, student to young professional.

For my entire life, I have had years defined by levels. Year 11 to year 12, first-year uni to second-year uni, until you stepped up to the next year group. Now, the structures are gone, my life is my own.

Undoubtedly it is the next, narcissistically youthful phase of determining my identity and future purpose. I'm sure as more weeks go on, when younger friends return to class and the days get colder, the reality of my new normal will settle.

This is an ode to the end of my university chapter. To the late-night cramming, the tutorials where I pretended to be much more intellectual than I was in reality and the endless academic papers I read to understand topics about politics, national security, gender and literature.

There is no way I would have been able to write for a career if the tutors and lecturers from the past five years hadn't critiqued my dodgy essays, policy briefs and creative drafts.

The work of academia provides pivotal research to better society, which we are seeing shine through during multiple climate crises, pandemics and political turmoil.

However it also has another important purpose, to give people, particularly young people like myself who think we know everything, the skill of critical thinking.

Whenever I open a research paper for a news article I am writing, a strange pang hits my chest.

I realise I miss agonising over thesis topics to get to the bottom of an academic argument or writing lengthy essays on niche topics.

As I move onto the next chapter in facing the challenges of journalism, I realise there is an importance in continuously learning beyond university years, and I doubt it is the end of me tackling academic research.

This story The odd experience of graduating during a pandemic first appeared on The Canberra Times.