Three Things I Learned from a Cancelled Graduation During COVID-19

As the weeks go by amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, certain things start to feel normal. We adjust to the small, everyday things like wearing a mask to the grocery store or setting up our kids’ Zoom links for teacher conversations. We accept these changes because it’s for the greater good and we know (hope?) that one day we will once again play at the park, send our kiddos to school, and browse the tables at the Farmer’s Market.

And then there are big things, like graduations, that just happen to fall during this extraordinary time. What do we do when a milestone that we have looked forward to for years is cancelled?

When The University of Iowa cancelled all spring 2020 commencement ceremonies, my family experienced the disappointment that comes with a cancelled milestone. My husband was graduating with his Doctorate of Pharmacy after going back to school at age 43. Throughout his years of hard work, the vision of “walking across the stage” (along with gallons of coffee) sustained him. And just like that, the vision was erased. I was heartbroken for him. We spent a few weeks just kind of looking at each other and saying, “it’s such a bummer!”

I know our situation is not unique; thousands of students planned to participate in graduations this spring.

Judging by my social media feed you’ve probably received more than one invitation to participate in a “drive by” graduation party. We’re making the best of it. While I hope none of us has to live through another pandemic, I learned three things from acknowledging milestones when life is turned upside down.

Acknowledgement is powerful.

It was really hard to watch someone I love experience disappointment. A simple, “I’m really sorry” went a long way in showing him that I understood it was a giant bummer and that there’s no way to replace what would have been his special day. When people experience disappointment, heartbreak, or failure, they need someone to sit with them in their discomfort for a minute. Offer a simple acknowledgement before you go about trying to make it all better.

Scaled-down expectations are ok.

My husband is easy to please. When I asked him what he wanted for his big (virtual) day, he said, “I don’t care, as long as I get a big Costco cake with my name in frosting.” Easy, right? Turns out, Costco is not making their big sheet cakes because big sheet cake=big gathering. I asked if they would make an exception if we promised to eat it all ourselves, but they didn’t get my logic. I called upon my favorite local bakery instead and they made a gorgeous, smaller cake with lots of frosting. He loved it and we didn’t have a giant cake on the counter for a week after the celebration! I hope we don’t experience another pandemic in our lifetime, but we certainly will have times when things don’t go as planned. If you can’t get the big cake, get a smaller cake with more frosting.

Friends and family are where it’s at.

When we learned that the big grad party would have to wait for another day, I still wanted him to feel the love from friends and family who cheered him on along the way. I put out a call to his family and friends to send 10-second video congratulation messages. I got dozens of responses! My fifth grader helped me to put them all together with music and photos (it helps to have Gen Z tech support in the house) and we surprised him with it on his graduation morning. Those messages meant more to him than anything else that happened that day. I wouldn’t have put together a gift like that had we thrown a traditional party, and it was an important reminder of the power of connecting with friends and family. I hopped on a Zoom call with my parents and sisters the very next day!

What are you learning during the pandemic that you will take with you back to normal life?


Sherri is a transplant from Oregon who came to be a Hawkeye in 2006 and stayed for the sweet corn...and for the Iowa boy she met along the way! She and her husband (Kyle) have a 9 year-old daughter, Aissa. Sherri earned her Ph.D. in Higher Education and Student Affairs at The University of Iowa and works for Ruffalo Noel Levitz as an Enrollment Marketing Consultant for colleges and universities. When she's not working, you can find her with her family, enjoying Iowa City and cheering on the Hawkeyes.


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