Completing preschool or Montessori now means a graduation ceremony in a local hall, four year olds donning cardboard caps and tiny gowns before continuing their journey through the Irish education system. Years of mini graduations and countless Hollywood coming of age films ingrain an image in the minds of these children, a goal.

The goal of a graduation ceremony was a constant that motivated final year students. Would the beaming four-year old in the graduation gown (belting out nursing rhymes) have guessed that they would be completing two decades of education behind a computer screen?

The word “university” sparks images of a cap thrown triumphantly in the air or a professional photograph hung with pride in the “good-room” of the family home. For those that choose to pursue a third level education, a graduation seems like a certainty. It is a momentous occasion often nestled between a First Holy Communion and another event that requires a white gown.

The graduation ceremony has become imbedded in most cultures around the world, growing bigger and bolder by the year. In China, it means renting a wedding dress for the occasion. In Sweden, sailor hats and embarrassing baby photos are the order of the day. However, French and German young people prefer to move quietly and without fuss into the workplace.

Covid-19 has catapulted all Irish students into an unfamiliar world, where life takes place through Zoom. Most graduation ceremonies will be a far cry from the events that alumni remember fondly. There is no stage and no fear of tripping on your rented gown in a crowed auditorium. A series of names are called from a screen ending with the promise of a proper celebration when things return to “normal” … whenever that may be.

In a general email, Maynooth University informed final year students that their Autumn graduation ceremonies will not be able to take place this semester. The promise of a “reception” at a later date was mentioned. A petition to instead postpone the graduation ceremonies quickly gathered over 4,000 signatures.

Lucy Nic Aindrís loved every minute of her time as a student in Maynooth University. She was shocked by the cancellation of the traditional graduation ceremony. “I had always imagined the typical cap and gown graduation, getting all dressed up and going almost in convoy with my entire family… I’m the first to go to college in my extended family so it’s a pretty big deal for us.”

“At a young age, I wouldn’t have seen university as an option. Graduation is a celebration for the student, but it is also a celebration for the student’s family.”

For many students, a graduation ceremony is a family affair. It is a chance for them to thank those that emotionally or financially supported them during their time in university. A Humanities student who would prefer to remain anonymous echoed Nic Aindrís’ disappointment. “I had come from a very hardworking family who mostly would have been involved in trades. There wouldn’t have been a tradition of going to university within my family. At a young age, I wouldn’t have seen university as an option. Graduation is a celebration for the student, but it is also a celebration for the student’s family. I had received the opportunities that might not have been available to them.”

Nic Aindrís does not believe a general email was an appropriate way to inform final year students of the decision. “I thought the email was completely inappropriate. The fact that it was included in the middle of a generic ‘all students’ email was disgraceful. We deserved so much better than that.”

Maynooth students like Nic Aindrís wonder about the possibility of an outdoor ceremony similar to those suggested in America. “I really do think a social distanced, possibly outdoor ceremony would work for everyone.”

In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that high school graduations can take place outside from 26th June. Cuomo said that these outdoor graduations would be limited to 150 people and would be dependent on case numbers within the city. “It gives us a couple of weeks between now and then, God forbid, the number changes” said Cuomo.  Meanwhile the Obamas decided to broadcast virtual events for Americans graduating in May. The cancellation of the traditional ceremonies in the States has led to creative alternatives from “Drive Thru Graduations” to “Animal Crossing” gatherings.

“I feel like we had been thrown so many curveballs, that it was just one other bad thing coming at us.”

For Caitín Loftus Kavanagh (an Irish and History student) the cancellation of the graduation ceremonies is the latest in a series of unfortunate events. “I feel like we had been thrown so many curveballs, that it was just one other bad thing coming at us.” For her, a graduation ceremony was the light at the end of a dark tunnel, but stated that the university has been forced to make difficult decisions in unprecedented times, that “nobody would want to make.”

The class of 2020 have lost a series of lasts they thought were guaranteed. An emotional end to an important time in their lives arrived unexpectedly on a day like any other. “If any year deserved a graduation, it was our year. We deserved that moment to look back on our achievements and to see that the work we put in was worth something.”  

Stuart Phelan is all too familiar with the realities of an online graduation. He graduated from Trinity College with a medicine degree in the height of a world pandemic. While he appreciated the effort, he looks forward to a real-life celebration. “I think under the circumstances it was nice to have something to mark the day but definitely an unworthy replacement. I don’t think it gives you the same closure on what is to be fair a big part of your life and definitely not the same feeling of accomplishment. It was so anticlimactic when the stream is over and you’re sitting there with your family like: Oh so that’s that.”