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Loss and resilience: A graduating senior puts virtual commencement into perspective

Loss and resilience: A graduating senior puts virtual commencement into perspective

Instead of attending in-person graduation, Sofia Scotti and thousands of fellow-Panthers will celebrate their achievements online.

April 27, 2020 at 9:00am

When FIU announced that in-person commencement ceremonies would be cancelled in place of virtual ones, graduating seniors saw a longed-for milestone slipping away. Many rightly mourned the opportunity to share their special day surrounded by family and friends.

Sofia Scotti, who majored in English, is one of them. But as she began to reflect on her final semester at FIU, she recognized not what she had lost but, rather, what she had gained over nearly four years at FIU. Here she shares her thoughts in hopes of inspiring her peers, and all of us, to carry on during a time of uncertainty and change.

Note: More than 50,000 people collectively viewed one of the nine virutal commencement ceremonies FIU debuted live online on May 8. The ceremonies featured an address from President Mark B. Rosenberg and individual photos and even brief videos of the graduates in what was a historic moment for the university.

By Sofia Scotti, Class of 2020

Of all the memories I have of my four years at FIU, my last day on campus does not stand out. It was a day like any other. So ordinary that I didn’t even think to look around and preserve the moment, one that I could look back on with some sense of finality. 

Without knowing it at the time, that Wednesday would become an uneventful and unsatisfying goodbye to a place that I love—so different from what I might have planned under normal circumstances: A last visit to the offices of my favorite professors whose recommendations helped me earn admission into 10 law schools. A final stop to tell one of my mentors, who pushed me to retake the LSAT after I came into his office sobbing over my first score, that I had accepted an offer from Harvard Law. A final goodbye to all the nooks and crannies of FIU that I have come to love so much over the years: the swinging benches in front of the Chemistry and Physics building, the spot at Barnes and Noble where my friends and I would hang out between classes, the booths on the first floor of the library and the joy I felt when I found one miraculously unoccupied. One last walk around the nature preserve and turtle pond, places that reminded me of the beauty all round and how much being at FIU opened my eyes to it. Hugs with friends, whom I likely would not see again soon, those who, like me, had plans to leave South Florida in the next several months either for grad school or full-time jobs.  

Instead, that last day fades into the weeks that led up to the transition of in-person classes to remote learning, a time when the news cycle was concerned with nothing but the coronavirus and I was concerned with nothing but picking a law school to attend in the fall. After FIU’s announcement of the closing of campus, I scrambled to acclimate myself to Zoom classes, something both students and professors adjusted to more quickly than we might have imagined.  

But then my fellow-seniors and I suffered another blow: news that traditional commencement was cancelled. It was then that I found myself consciously straining to remember my last moment on campus—for it would not be on graduation day—searching for something that would serve as closure for such a formative chapter in my life. But I came up short. 

It is uniquely devastating to work for four years towards a degree only to have your graduation postponed indefinitely. FIU has laudably arranged a virtual commencement ceremony, but it feels horribly anticlimactic to finish college and not be able to walk across a stage to receive your diploma. More upsetting still is the fact that it feels petty to be sad about it. In a time like this, of course there are bigger things to worry about. But knowing that it could be worse does not take away the pain that so many of us are feeling. Commencement is meant to celebrate a huge achievement.

About a quarter of FIU students set to graduate will be the first in their families to earn a four-year degree. Others, like myself, will be the first in our families to graduate from university in the United States. For many, reaching this point has required overcoming significant obstacles. So sharing that with our loved ones has extra special meaning. 

Mourning the loss of a physical commencement, I found time to think about its true significance. Even though it feels so official, walking across a stage to receive a diploma is not what grants our degrees legitimacy. It isn't in shaking President Rosenberg’s hand or even in physically receiving our diploma that all of our efforts are validated. We have earned our degrees through years of hard work. For me, that included many face-to-face office meetings with my professors during their office hours, many late nights spent studying for finals, hours of relentless essay editing, multiple tutoring sessions with friends. Nothing, not even a cancelled (or reconfigured) commencement can take our accomplishments away from us.  

I hope that each of us finds strength and a sense of peace knowing that we are not going through this difficult time alone. The fact is, commencement as an event holds important meaning for so many of us, and it is a huge loss to suffer. We deserve to mark the occasion—even if in a way different than we originally anticipated. 

So, I will be sending a commencement link to my entire family in hopes they can join me virtually while I celebrate with my parents and brother at home, where we will watch the ceremony on a computer and then eat takeout from my favorite restaurant. 

Despite the fact that I don’t remember my last moments at FIU, I do remember the most significant ones. I remember each mentor who guided me along my path, each friend I made, each class I took, and each day that I went to campus not for a class but just because I liked being there. Even without the formal ceremony that I’d always envisioned to close this chapter of my life, the most significant memories of my time at FIU will stay with me forever. And for now, that is enough.