2021 summa cum laude graduates share their stories, look forward to future plans

Angela Tam, News Contributor

Oregon State University student Max Peterson is one of many who have been forced to decide whether to follow his planned degree path or make sacrifices for the sake of experiencing the graduation he’s always imagined.

“Do you want to study abroad or do you want to walk across that stage at graduation? You have to choose,” said Peterson, a third-year student majoring in accounting and business information systems.

The switch to remote or modified learning modalities for the 2020-2021 academic year changed the plans of many students not just in their living or work arrangements but also in regards to their academics.

Graduation is among the plethora of traditions and events that have taken a new form since the pandemic began. The shift has affected more than just those graduating now but rather altering plans of graduating classes to come.

Being a first-year student myself who has just begun the path towards graduation, I have had my reservations about how the pandemic and mixed course modalities will affect my expected graduation four years from now.

Carey Hilbert, the associate head advisor and coordinator for Pre-Med & Allied Health Professions at OSU, has seen the various impacts that the pandemic has had on students’ approaches to adjust their learning.

“I would have to say that some students have ‘stepped out’ and I really hope they have the motivation to come back to finish their degree. Some have decided, since they aren’t able to do anything else, to pile on the classes, take 20 [plus] credits [per] term and get their degrees done earlier than planned,” Hilbert said.

Even the students who have not quite “stepped out,” as Hilbert said, but rather stepped back, have struggled with the adjustment in non-academic ways which has impacted their planned coursework.

Second-year OSU student Aria Back, an ethnic studies major, has been one of the many students now in the position of needing to step back in some way.

“The biggest change that the pandemic has made for me is that it has been really, really difficult to continue my classes. My mental health has been extremely impacted in a negative way. It has been so much more difficult to be assigned extra work in a lot of my classes,” Back said. “I have been having to take a lot fewer credits than I anticipated having to this year. I started out trying to do the same 18-credit term that I would normally do. In spring term of last year, I did 17 or 18, then the next term went to 14 and now I am only doing about six because that is all I can handle.”

Hilbert acknowledges these struggles on the student experience end of things, in addition to describing the stress felt by the faculty. Hilbert sees that the process of degree completion can come at the cost of self-care or mental health for many in a regular year, let alone now.

“Many teaching faculty, professional faculty and students are more fatigued, stressed and exhausted than I recall in my 25 years. Count me in that group. Our faculty, staff and advisors CARE about students, and when they are struggling, [we] work to find ways to alleviate their struggle, which takes an additional toll on us,” Hilbert said. “I really hope they have pride in what they have accomplished but also have learned the importance of self-care. I hope students see how resilient and adaptable they are.”

For students and advisors alike, a derailment in course load even for just a year raises issues when looking ahead towards graduation. For Back specifically, her expected graduation has been postponed by about a year.

While this change is a drastic adjustment for Back, she has also seen her new pandemic-academic situation providing more flexibility.

“Having more time to reflect on what I am studying is kind of a blessing in disguise of remote learning, I was able to change my major from sociology to ethnic studies during the pandemic…. It has been hopeful looking into the possibilities of research once we are back in person,” Back said.

More time for self reflection has often been one positive many people have been able to take away from the pandemic. In terms of student education, the reflection and pause has made some students dive deeper into their interests and explore new options.

Peterson had his plans significantly deviate from what he thought his last few years as an OSU undergraduate would be and what he would be doing.

“I was originally going to study abroad as a part of the international business program with the College of Business but because of the pandemic, [everything] is so uncertain and I really wanted to walk at graduation… so I just decided to axe it and not do [study abroad] anymore,” Peterson said.

Peterson’s adjustment has not been an easy decision but has allowed him to look past graduation now knowing that he can still achieve his goal of graduating in four years. Peterson’s ideas to explore new options for post-Baccalaureate achievement came from his pandemic-academic adjustment, giving him a new perspective on what his future could hold.

“Now I can get out in four years, take a little bit of time for myself and I think I can get a Masters degree somewhere, which before the pandemic I was not even considering, but now that is like what I want to do,” Peterson said. “I am really glad I [began to] consider that.”

Each individual’s experience has been overwhelmingly unique in this past year, with no wrong or right path in sight. While Peterson was able to take more difficult and heavier course loads during remote learning to alleviate the work in terms to come, Back’s experience shifted in the opposite direction.

Despite the disappointment and receiving, as Back said, “not the college experience we had signed up for,” all students, myself included, have been able to rethink, reflect and reform ideas about the future and why we are all pursuing the education that we are.

Similar to Back, I had never imagined or expected my college experience to be writing lab reports off of videos or only seeing two faces on a screen in a class of

nearly 200 people.

However, I have taken the opportunity to stretch myself in both aspects of course work, to get a jump start on my credit-heavy track to graduation and extracurricular work. The non-credit experiences I have been able to partake in this year are just a few of the results from my own time spent reflecting on not what my experience has lacked or disappointed in, but rather what I want to get out of my experience.

“Looking on the positive side… you get to consider things you hadn’t before, you get to slow down and enjoy life a little. [The pandemic] is very negative but finding the positive is also really good,” Peterson said.

As we seem to near the end of this pandemic reality in the near future, student experiences, and the pre-pandemic path to walking across the stage at the end of a four-year journey has been changed for years to come.

Hilbert likes to remind students that amidst the chaos of it all, they should celebrate the monumental achievements made by simply continuing education and living in this time.

“I know we adapt to our circumstances, but it just boggles my mind. They are warriors and saints,” Hilbert said.

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