Girl lying on the floor with a graduation cap and gown

Graduating university during a global pandemic. How COVID-19 is transforming the way we work, learn and live.

“You’ve got the job, when can you start?” are the words I heard through the phone as I stood in the isle of a bullet train on the way to Hakuba last year (remember when we could travel?!). I suddenly had 4 weeks to get back to Australia and move my life to Sydney.

Everyone is always encouraging you to make the most of every opportunity and put yourself out there while at university, so when I had the opportunity to complete an an internship at a global company, I took it.

With just a few units left in my Bachelor of Business and Fine Arts, it was a gamble to move halfway across the country, but QUT is all about ‘real world experiences’ right? 

I dropped out of class just before the census date and I was optimistic that I could find a way to finish these ‘capstone’ units externally. But after months of research and negotiation, I was at a loss. At this point, I genuinely thought I would never be able to graduate without giving up the life and career I was starting to build in Sydney.

Of all the things that could have happened, I did not think it would be a global pandemic that would give me the chance to be the first in my family to graduate from university.

“COVID-19 is transforming the way that we learn, teach and work.” (QUT)

The transition to a complete online experience for students with online classes and exams, or what the unis are now calling ‘flexible study,’ meant that I could complete everything from my bedroom…a 1000km away. I could be in a group project with someone from Alice Springs, my tutor could host virtual classes from his home in Toowoomba where he was also caring for his newborn child and I could go to my full-time internship and part-time study, whenever and wherever I wanted.

With online resources like Blackboard, Zoom and Discord, I was using new and existing tools in ways I hadn’t before – encouraged by teachers to engage with other students, maximise my additional time to learn and study (goodbye commuting!) and get feedback more dynamically from tutors and peers. Of course I miss the coffee catchups, the co-curricular activities and the face to face contact, but there was something empowering about taking control of my studies to learn when and where I wanted to learn, all the while getting invaluable undergrad career experience.

There’s also other aspects of life to consider that are changing. People are becoming more active and embracing the outdoors, like taking a work call while going for a walk, or getting outside for a break with a quick lunchtime run (ok, that’s just me.) But I wouldn’t be surprised if there is an upward trend in physical activity as people’s bodies crave the sun and the fresh air as a result of being at home for extended periods of time. And we all know the positive psychological and physiological effects this activity can have.

Does this concept of ‘flexible study’ make opportunities for work experience while studying more accessible?

My experience has made me consider if we are finally able to embrace a true work/study/life balance where someone can have ‘flexible’ study options and work or intern somewhere to gain career experience and also work to support their themselves. Coming out of your uni with experience in the field you want to be in gives an immense advantage to both your own confidence but also your ability to negotiate salary and open yourself up to more opportunities. With more students able to engage in work experience, the demand for entry level roles will be higher, but the long term benefits are a more experienced workforce who are empowered in time management, being a self starter and taking control of their careers.

It does feels very strange to have waited so long for a graduation ceremony that may never happen. It’s hard to know when the next time we can meet in a room with hundreds of our classmates, teachers and friends again. I certainly want to enjoy this moment of graduating university and celebrate the successes in the face of adversity, but it’s hard not to just go about your (new) normal life and forget about these achievements.

With a graduation certificate in the mail, rather than in the hands of a dean at a graduation ceremony, it’s time to think of new ways to celebrate and more importantly, be connected to the academic community and other students.

For all the 2020 graduates out there…

Girl lying on the floor with a graduation cap and gown
It’s time to consider new ways to celebrate, like a DIY graduation photoshoot.

Tune in to a celebrity commencement speech.

Swap your graduation photos on the riverbank for a DIY home photoshoot.

Host your own socially distant graduation ceremony with your friends and family.

And take some time to celebrate everything that has been achieved, don’t think that because we won’t be sitting with hundreds of peers in an auditorium and throwing graduation caps in the air that these achievements are not to be cheered and clapped for.

Imagine telling your kids that you graduated in the middle of a global pandemic? Now that’s a story I can’t wait to tell…

Congratulations to the class of 2020.

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