How the class of 2020 became the class of COVID-19

How coronavirus changed college for 14 million students
How coronavirus changed college for 14 million students

To address the coronavirus pandemic, many colleges and universities have closed their doors and moved classes online — a shift that students, professors, administrators and public health officials agree will play an important role in limiting the virus' transmission. 

In the United States, at least 1,149 colleges and universities have closed so far, affecting over 14 million students. And students who were preparing to graduate this spring are feeling a range of emotions as their college careers come to an abrupt end. 

CNBC Make It spoke with college seniors to learn how coronavirus has disrupted their final months before graduation and how the class of 2020 became known as the class of COVID-19.

Rushed goodbyes

On March 10, Harvard University announced that classes would be moved online and gave students five days to evacuate their dorms. 

Trey Rogers, a member of Harvard's senior class, says he is "devastated" that his college career was cut short, even though he understands the need for such public health measures. 

"It's a lot of goodbyes," Rogers says. "But it's hard to pack in two months, three months of goodbyes into a couple of days when there's so much confusion."

"It sucks a lot," Robin Fierberg, a senior at Stanford University, tells CNBC Make It. "I had to say goodbye to a lot of my friends much quicker than I thought I would have to, and under much different circumstances. It's unclear whether there will be a commencement ceremony."

Emotions run high at the Olin College of Engineering "Fauxmencement" for senior students on March 12, 2020, two months early, held because of coronavirus fears in Needham, MA.
John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Canceled commencement ceremonies

Indeed, many college seniors expect there will be no commencement ceremony to commemorate their collegiate accomplishments. 

"If [graduation] happens — if it's able to be put on — everyone still won't be there," says Michael Robertson, a senior at Davidson College, referencing the financial realities and public health barriers that would likely prevent some students and their families back from traveling back to campus just for a ceremony. "It's hard to imagine my 92-year-old grandmother traveling to graduation under the current circumstances."

The likelihood that graduation ceremonies will be canceled strikes a harsh chord for students who have spent their lives working toward their college degrees. 

"The fact that we might not even have a graduation is probably the biggest thing for me because I worked so hard these last four years," Jordyn Jamal, a senior at the College of Saint Rose tells CNBC Make It. "And the fact that I can't share that moment with my family, my friends, myself — it's just devastating.

"It would honestly break my heart if the school just mailed us our diploma and just said, 'OK, have a great life,'" she says.

Some students took the issue into their own hands and held their own "fauxmencement ceremonies" before their campuses closed. At Wellesley College, students coordinated their own unofficial graduation in which no administrators spoke, no diplomas were distributed and students said their own names into a microphone. Students at Olin College used garbage bags as graduation gowns and made tassels out of yarn during an impromptu ceremony of their own.

In Their Own Words: Princeton student on campus shutdown
In Their Own Words: Princeton student on campus shutdown

Professional plans in jeopardy

The college seniors CNBC Make It spoke with are particularly concerned about their professional lives after college and are bracing themselves to enter the workforce during a recession. 

Cheryn Shin, a senior at Wellesley majoring in English and creative writing, says she's spent the past few months looking for a full-time job to start after graduation. But because of the pandemic, her job search has become even harder. 

"It feels like even fewer companies are looking to hire," she says. "I was told that [majoring in] the humanities was all about luck and timing, so it felt like a slap in the face because it feels like I have neither of those."

Fierberg, the Stanford senior, says that the situation has been stressful both for students who do and don't have job offers for after graduation. 

"I don't have a job or anything lined up as of right now," he says. "I know a lot of people who do have jobs lined up in the fall, and I think for them it's reassuring to know that they have something, but I think that's also scary because the economy is tanking."

Davidson senior Robertson had firm plans for after graduation but is now unsure how they will play out.

"I was supposed to work at a camp in the summer. They're saying that's going to continue, but I'm skeptical. And I was supposed to travel abroad to Kyrgyzstan in August to teach. I really don't know how that's going to play out in terms of the pace of the virus. So professionally, it throws me through a loop," says Robertson. "I know that's a concern of a lot of working Americans, and I'm sort of in that liminal stage where I'm a student right now, but very soon I'm not going to be.

"I was planning on being financially independent from my parents, that's totally up in the air now as well."

Robertson's back-up plan is to apply for remote coding jobs. "I think I am in a better position than some because I have coding experience and a lot of the work that I would envision myself doing could be done from home," he says. 

A sense of camaraderie

These difficult circumstances seem to have given many members of the class of 2020 a unique sense of camaraderie.

"I find solace in the idea that this is something that probably every college senior in the U.S. is going through in one way or another," says Fierberg. 

"I don't know where I'm going next," says Robertson. "But we're all sort of in the same boat — we've been thrown into the deep end a little sooner than we expected." 

Check out: The best credit cards of 2020 could earn you over $1,000 in 5 years

Don't miss:

Michael Horn: How to tell if your degree is worth the money
Michael Horn: How to tell if your degree is worth the money