What I’ve learned from graduating during a pandemic

Kate talks about how COVID-19 changed her time in college and her plans for the future

Written by Kate Conboye


Exam results came in and there were no meeting friends from college to celebrate the achievement of completing the past three years of study. There was no last night out or goodbye to Cork city and there will be no graduation. It feels like I have watched a TV show for three years and have been robbed of my series finale. While I am sad to be leaving Cork and university life behind me, I must remember that we live in a small country so I’m never too far away from UCC.

Closing the college

In March 2020 I received an email from UCC explaining that campus was closing due to COVID-19. With that the final semester of my undergraduate degree was completely changed. At the time we were in week 10 of the 12-week semester and roughly two months away from exam-time and the submission of our theses. Everything that I had become accustomed to – studying in the Boole library (or going for coffee instead of studying), attending in-person lectures, meeting with lecturers and supervisors – stopped overnight. Suddenly I had to learn how to study at home again. I had to complete most of my thesis at home with help from my supervisor only over email (Doing statistics over email is CHALLENGING).

At home, it felt like I was 16 again. Up in the morning, breakfast, study throughout the day, then dinner at half five. The news, reeling in the years, more study, call friends, bed. Repeat. I am the youngest, so all my family had been at university or working in different counties for the better part of the last decade. My family were all under the same roof for the first time in years – which had its own challenges but turned out to be a fantastic support system during such an uncertain time. I live with my auntie and two cousins, one of whom was finishing her Law degree in UL and one who is completing her Masters in CIT. My poor Aunt was stuck in a house for three months of lockdown with three completely stressed, out-of-their-usual-study-environment- students in pivotal parts of their degrees. God bless her patience.

Looking after my mental health

Getting motivated was what I found hardest about studying at home during lockdown. It seemed so strange to be studying and writing assignments when there were such unprecedented events occurring worldwide day-by-day or even minute-by-minute. I found it very difficult to study and get motivated to write assignments when I did not know what the next year (or week) of my life would hold. There was just so much happening and so much information to consume about the pandemic. There was no escaping constant reminders of the situation in which we found ourselves. In the end I had to make a conscious decision in early April to stop watching the news every night and checking the death tolls and new cases every day. This was the best decision that I made during lockdown.

After this I can honestly say that I got more into the study mindset, was able to concentrate more and complete assignments on time and to the best of my ability. While there is a feeling of guilt that somewhat comes along with ignoring the bigger picture of the problems throughout the world in the wake of COVID-19, it was also hugely important for my mental health. Ultimately I found that making the decision to take a break from looking at coronavirus news allowed me to get through the lockdown and complete my degree. I had to choose to put myself first.

“What are your plans for next year?”

When the exams were finished and the assignments were submitted, I think a collective sigh of relief was felt by all final year students. But the discussion in my house and elsewhere then turned to “What are your plans for next year?” This is a phrase that can send a shiver down the spine of graduating students in any normal year. However, in the wake of Covid-19 there is an added anxiety when this often-dreaded question is asked. For the students that know what they are doing next year this question can be answered with an easy, concise, and almost memorised script – I’m working here or have been accepted to a master’s program there. For us who do not know, this question is usually met with a long rambling stream of consciousness ending in confusion and regret for both the person who asked and for yourself.

The options are clear in a normal year. You travel or emigrate, find a job, or continue with college. This year however we can completely rule out the idea of “travelling” and finding a job related to your degree can be tough in a normal year not to mention in a pandemic.So, in my post thesis, mid pandemic, pre vaccine mind, the question was whether to do a masters this year or not. This led to more questions. Is there any point of undertaking a masters (considering the price) when you cannot have the full in contact experience? What is happening with the universities? What masters do I even want to do? I eventually realised that there were more questions than answers . My gut and my stress over these questions led me to one conclusion. Not to do a masters this year. To hold off and to wait. I have decided to live at home, to work, to let the pandemic unfold and to stay safe with my family and hope that in September 2021 that I will be starting my masters, with money saved, and vaccinated from the coronavirus?

While graduating during a pandemic was not ideal or expected, I got through it, we got through it. It has taken time, but I seem to have a plan and best of all an answer to the dreaded question! I also have a new appreciation for my family, friends, and my time at university.

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