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in this together

Coronavirus stole our 2020 college graduation. We made our own.

For years, we planned to walk the field at Indiana University’s football stadium. Graduation wasn't how we pictured it. It was still perfect for now.

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – The five of us sat on a rocky cliff, graduation caps on and red Solo-cupped mimosas in hand, and stared as the bright, yellow star surfaced over the lake. This year, as the sun took the stage, it was the closest thing we had to a commencement speaker. 

It was a decent speech, all things considered. An omnipotent celestial body has a lot to teach five college best friends. She (I would like to think the sun is a woman) put a lot of emphasis on unspoken lessons and how a bit of warmth can soothe any situation. 

But the sun’s early morning sermon over Monroe Lake on May 9 was not what any of us had planned on. 

In the grand scheme of pandemic-related things, having your college graduation ceremony canceled is at the very bottom of the worst-things-to-happen list. We have lost nearly 1,500 Hoosiers to coronavirus, and for that my heart will ache a lot longer

For four years, we planned to walk onto the field at Indiana University’s Memorial Stadium, heels sinking into the turf even though the graduation pamphlets specifically told us not to wear heels because they might sink into the turf

Five college best friends from Indiana University found a way to celebrate on the day graduation was canceled. They gathered at sunrise May 9 on the rocky shore of Lake Monroe in Bloomington, Indiana.
Five college best friends from Indiana University found a way to celebrate on the day graduation was canceled. They gathered at sunrise May 9 on the rocky shore of Lake Monroe in Bloomington, Indiana.
Sarah Verschoor

My friends and I spent months guessing who would speak to IU’s bicentennial class would be. They picked Mark Cuban, right? I was personally rooting for Laverne Cox. She didn’t finish her degree here, but she is still an all-star alumna in my heart.  

Another appropriate pick would have been Amy Poehler, who played famed deputy parks director Leslie Knope in NBC’s hit sitcom “Parks and Rec,” set in fictional Pawnee, Indiana. She was an IU grad in the show, demonstrated relentless optimism in every episode and was especially well prepared for a pandemic (see Season 5, Episode 13).

The guesses were all for nothing, though. As coronavirus raged in China, then hit Europe and worked its way to the U.S., IU’s commencement ceremony was canceled. The university’s official position is that it’s “postponed,” but it is hard to imagine a time in the near future when they will allow 10,000-person gatherings. 

Grief, and anger: People are furious over 2020 graduation ceremonies

The week leading to the now-canceled ceremony felt bleak. For whatever reason, I couldn’t delete my dad’s hotel reservation off my Google calendar and, man, that stung. IU made an official graduation webpage to honor us virtually with a photoshopped picture of each graduate’s name on the scoreboard at the stadium. Bless them for trying.

In light of the general sucky-ness, my most kindhearted friend, Hannah, came up with the plan to celebrate with our group of friends. 

Saturday morning brought a frigid 29 degrees, and it was honestly a miracle we all made it to the lake’s edge before the sun actually rose. 

Inevitably, Lydia had to detour back to her house to get her cap. We nearly missed the turn for the Cutouts, the beloved spot where generations of IU students have gathered on the lake. The gate guarding the parking lot was locked. 

We found a way around it, because that’s what you do, right? When life is at a standstill and death lurks all around us, you hop the fences because you are one of the lucky ones whose lungs still work. What else do five healthy, 22-year-olds have to do but keep going? 

As I write this, I’m very unemployed. My lease in Bloomington is up at the end of June. My hopes of taking a grand post-grad trip along Amtrak’s West Coast route are dashed. There is not a lot going on for me. 

Hannah Boufford and Bryn Eudy reflect on being new graduates in an uncertain world at the edge of Lake Monroe in Bloomington, Indiana, on May 9th. It was the morning of what should have been graduation day at Indiana University.
Hannah Boufford and Bryn Eudy reflect on being new graduates in an uncertain world at the edge of Lake Monroe in Bloomington, Indiana, on May... Hannah Boufford and Bryn Eudy reflect on being new graduates in an uncertain world at the edge of Lake Monroe in Bloomington, Indiana, on May 9th. It was the morning of what should have been graduation day at Indiana University.
Sarah Verschoor

But I still open my laptop almost every day to search for job openings. I scan Apartments.com for listings. I naively scour Airbnb, hoping that maybe in August I can get away from it all, even if just for a few days. 

It’s really a privilege right now to be healthy and to have the strength to keep moving forward. So those of us who can, must. We have to create moments of joy and let our loved ones revel in them. We have to keep the spirit of life alive. 

That’s what I believe we did that morning. We kept the joy and pride of graduation alive in a way that was maybe more meaningful for us than real graduation. We wrapped ourselves in our blankets and watched the waves dance on the lake. We cried and laughed about our best and worst college memories. We took about a million photos, because we knew this was a moment we will want to relive. 

The sunrise was partially eclipsed by fog rolling off the lake. It had been pleasant weather the week before, so when the chilly air hit the warmer lake, the haze appeared. No amount of fog could keep us from soaking in the warmth of the sun and radiating the light. 

Sarah Verschoor is a 2020 graduate of the Media School at Indiana University. Follow her on Twitter: @SarahVerschoor.