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Graduating amid a pandemic

College students from Merrick, Bellmore look to an uncertain future

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The boisterous pomp and circumstance that accompany college graduations softened to a hum this year, as restrictions on large gatherings remained in effect to curb the spread of Covid-19. Though some commencement ceremonies were re-scheduled, many moved to virtual venues, depriving graduates of that once-in-a-lifetime walk.

In March, as seniors set off on spring break vacations or came home to see their families, they unknowingly arrived un-prepared, with only a week’s worth of clothes. They never imagined that a global pandemic would force them to return home for the rest of the semester, and, eventually, their graduations.

The new normal sets in

Kacie Badalato, a senior at Catholic University of America, was in Florida with her college softball team when she first heard that NCAA Division I schools were canceling sports seasons amid coronavirus concerns. The group had just wrapped up spring training in Orlando and was returning to CUA, a Division III school, in time for classes, which, they were told, would be moved online.

“It was such an emotional ride back,” said Badalato, a Merrick native who had played on the team since her freshman year. “We tried not to think about our season getting canceled, but if the D1 schools were doing it, we figured it was only a matter of time. It was such a feeling of gloom.”

Badalato, 21, remained in Washington, D.C., for two weeks before returning to Long Island. “In the beginning, I had hope that it would blow over, but then I realized I had to come home,” she said. “I went from constant movement and having people around to being in my bedroom at home, so it was an adjustment.”

On March 15, just before she was due home for spring break, Jillian Rossi, a senior at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, was waitressing near her school. That week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo instituted New York’s stay-at-home order, so when Rossi returned to her hometown of Bellmore, “I never ended up going back” to school, she said.

At Berklee, Rossi, 21, was a songwriting major and musical theater writing minor. Many of her classes involved “hands-on collaboration” with other students, she said, so working via Zoom put a dent in the creative process.

“It was weird adjusting to video classrooms and hard to write music over FaceTime,” she said. “Virtual writing sessions do happen in the industry, but I would’ve liked for them to be in person for my last semester.”

Graduation day

The Catholic University of America sent out a survey to graduating seniors to see which commencement option — virtual, in-person or postponed — they would prefer, but “the school made it clear that we weren’t going to have a genuine graduation at the time,” Badalato said.

On May 16, the same day as CUA’s online commencement ceremony, Badalato’s parents organized a car parade in her honor. Friends and family drove by the house while honking horns and bearing gifts, signs and celebratory balloons. The spectacle brought tears to the graduate’s eyes. “It was bittersweet,” she said.

Rossi said she expected her graduation would be held virtually, as well. On May 9, she donned a cap and gown over her pajamas and sat in her living room as a digital ceremony played on the television screen. “I was excited to be done, but I felt defeated,” she said.

The next chapter

Badalato graduated with a Bachelor of Science in biochemistry and is now applying to pharmacy school. Because of the pandemic, some institutions have waived applicants’ requirement to file Pharmacy College Admission Test scores with their applications, which works to Badalato’s benefit — her PCAT on April 3 was canceled and has yet to be rescheduled. 

Rossi earned a Bachelor of Music in three years, and was planning to move to Los Angeles this September to get an early start in the music industry. While her plans for the fall are now up in the air, she will remotely intern at a music licensing company in New York City this summer.

As the class of 2020 enters an uncertain job market, with unemployment at its highest point since the Great Depression, both Badalato and Rossi had messages of certainty to share with their fellow graduates.

“The world’s not ending,” Rossi said. “We’re gonna get through it, and the class of 2020 will only come out stronger.”

“Don’t stop pushing for your goals — life is gonna go on,” Badalato said. “It’s easy to get miserable and negative, especially in this situation, but you have to acknowledge what you can still do and just keep moving forward.”