Students devastated as in-person graduations are canceled

Schools have been forced to drop events due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Caren was looking forward to walking across the stage at the University of Alabama at Birmingham this May as the first member of her family to receive a college degree from an American university.

However, the 21-year-old's dream to celebrate with a traditional ceremony was crushed when the COVID-19 pandemic forced her college, and schools all across the country, to postpone or outright cancel their in-person graduations, replacing many of them with virtual ceremonies.

"It's just devastating. There are no words for this because I've worked so hard, I've struggled so much, I've studied endless hours," Caren told ABC News. "This is all I've waited for. For me, this is not a given. Because of my status, this opportunity might not be there tomorrow."

Caren, who is graduating with a degree in nursing, has lived in a trailer park in Calera, Alabama, since she came to the United States from Mexico with her parents and two older brothers, at the age of 6.

"I've known my whole life that I was different because I am undocumented. I've worked so hard because I knew that we were here to have a better opportunity in life, and I couldn't just let that go to waste," Caren said.

When she found out that she would not have a graduation, Caren said she couldn't hold back her tears. "For my whole family, it's a huge accomplishment," she explained.

At the age of 16, Caren became a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which she credits for opening countless doors for her since.

"I was given the opportunity to go to college because of DACA," Carren added, noting that without the program, it is unlikely that she would have ever been able to pursue a higher education.

Although Caren and her family did have a celebration to recognize her recent accomplishment, she particularly regrets not being able to walk across the university stage in front of her younger cousins to show them that "anything is possible."

"With the bare minimum, I have been able to do this. They are U.S. citizens and will have many more opportunities on their plate," Caren said.

In most cultures, major transitions in an individual's life are marked with ritual ceremonies symbolizing the passage of one stage of life to the next. Early 20th-century anthropologist Arnold Van Gennep, called these emotionally-charged ceremonies important rites of passage, depicting three phases in every rite: separation, transition and incorporation.

A school graduation -- whether it's from a college or a high school -- is one of these essential rituals, one that celebrates with much pomp and pageantry a student's personal journey and transition into adulthood.

"This is a really important rite of passage for people, and it signifies a very important accomplishment. It's a launch point, it's a crossroads," Richard Weissbourd, a psychologist and senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, told ABC News.

Acknowledging the importance of the ritual, some colleges and universities are proposing hybrid ceremonies: an online one in the spring, followed by an in-person celebration when the pandemic has eased.

Having a virtual ceremony "doesn't reduce the significance of this day in your life or the importance of what you've achieved," University of Connecticut President Thomas C. Katsouleas told graduates. But, he continued, "you deserve to be celebrated for all you've accomplished, and it's our intent to do exactly that today, and again, in person, in regalia, in October if possible."

Still, Weissbourd said, it may be hard for some students and their families to afford to return to campus for an in-person ceremony.

For many families, this is a tremendous disappointment, Weissbourd explained. "It's a big loss, and it's going to be very hard to replace."

Cassandra, 18, is one of the many high school seniors who was eagerly awaiting her graduation ceremony.

A first-generation high school graduate, she plans to attend San Diego State University in the fall. Cassandra immigrated to San Diego from Mexico at the age of 6, with her mother, a single parent, "trying to live the American Dream." For her, this dream "has always commenced with crossing the [school] stage, wearing white, for my mother."

As Student Body President, and captain of her cheerleading team, Cassandra will graduate with a 4.23 GPA, having worked hard to prove to her mother that her "sacrifices of leaving [her] home country weren't in vain."

"I won't be able to give that to my mom," she added.

Caren and Cassandra asked that their last names not be used in this article.

"I'm devastated to know that what I once saw as a goal won't be happening anymore," Kenna McKinley, a senior from Santa Rosa County, Florida, said.

"It hurts a lot," she explained, "because we've seen all the people before us have their graduations."

Like for so many other seniors in the country, McKinley's school year did not conclude the way it should have. "The Class of 2020 lost its last three months of childhood," added McKinley. "We never got to spend those last months being kids and making those last memories."

McKinley said that she would have settled for a relatively small ceremony, with only family members, so that she and her classmates could have had the experience of walking across the school stage.

Many parents are also heartbroken at the prospect of missing their child's graduation ceremony.

Valerie Boone Townsend is a single mother whose daughter, Summer, is a senior at the University of Alabama. Summer's graduation has been postponed until August.

"I feel like crying. I think I'm more upset than she is. This is my baby, she did it. She did it in four years. I didn't get a chance to go to college," Townsend told ABC News. "I've been looking forward to this for a long time."

"She wanted to be able to walk across the stage, because she has accomplished so much," Townsend said of her daughter.

Although the University of Alabama's graduation is still scheduled to take place on Aug. 1 (though it all depends on the state of the pandemic), Townsend has found it difficult to hide her disappointment.

"I'm just sitting here with my fingers and toes crossed hoping that we are going to do something in August," she said.

Logan Reardon, a Quinnipiac graduate who just completed his Master's degree, said that although he is saddened by the absence of an in-person graduation ceremony, "there's really nothing else the school can do."

When a major rite of passage, such as graduation, is abruptly disrupted, it can cause confusion, disorientation and lack of closure among those affected. For the class of 2020, this frustration is further exacerbated by the uncertainties that they may face in the fall, in terms of their plans, whether academic or work-related.