Reinventing graduation: 3 ways to honor milestones in the midst of pandemic

Hannah Lee Sandoval Image Hannah Lee Sandoval | Apr 23, 2020

Photo by Juan Ramos

Graduation 2020 has become a trending topic on social media—and not for the usual reasons.

This year, seniors wait in anticipation not of walking across the platform in cap and gown, but of news about what, if any, replacements will be arranged for this important rite of passage. While many of the memes and TikTok videos imagining this year’s virtual graduations are funny, it’s apparent that young people are trying to cope with feelings of disappointment, anger, and sadness. What was meant to be a culminating celebration has now become a loss to grieve and process. There is stress and sadness all around: seniors are feeling lost, parents are devastated alongside them, and schools are scrambling to either cancel, postpone, or host graduations virtually.

While it’s true that COVID-19 has disrupted life as we know it, most adults have plenty of experience with transition, sudden change, and loss. For young people working hard towards an event that signifies the end of their childhood and beginning of their adult life, the necessary social distancing measures have brought unexpected challenges at the most inopportune time; many young people lack the experience to know that things will most likely work out okay in the end.

Despite the loss of the traditional graduation event, there are still plenty of thoughtful and creative ways to mark this important moment and proudly recognize the achievements young people have worked hard for.

As a therapist, former high school counselor, and youth pastor, I have spent countless hours listening to young people during this challenging season (#ihatequaratinelife). Recently, in a chat with a group of seniors who are organizing activities for their schools and churches, it became clear that this year’s grads are keenly desiring personalized connection with the adults who helped guide them through their adolescent years. When it comes to planning virtual graduation activities, students talk about their appreciation for those—whether principals, pastors, or teachers—who are reaching out one-on-one to connect and acknowledge the challenges of trying to finish high school virtually.

Some students have faced a unique set of obstacles in order to continue their digital learning. These students are from low-income families, have special needs or learning disabilities, or are English Language Learners—and sometimes all three. Many formerly middle-class families are facing financial difficulty for the first time, making it a challenge for parents to be emotionally present and supportive for their burgeoning young adults. A few students have confessed to me that they have “already given up,” overwhelmed by the feelings of isolation and disconnection and unable to cope with their less-than-ideal circumstances at home. However, for those young people who have at least one adult to connect with, this personalized support keeps students going. As social distancing causes graduates pain and grief, community and connection are still essential.

Tweet: As social distancing causes graduates pain and grief, community and connection are still essential.

As we navigate graduation season digitally, what can caring adults do to help young people establish personal connections?

  • Create a safe space for graduates to express their feelings of sadness, anger, and disappointment. Young people desperately need to hear from caring adults that it is okay to not feel normal or productive right now—and to know that these feelings may even last for longer than is comfortable. The loss of so many aspects of their senior year can cause young people to feel complicated grief, which may linger a while. Think about hosting community forums where graduates can share feelings with one another.
  • Provide emotional safety and support by listening with empathy (we don’t have to have all the answers, or any, for that matter; sometimes a silent nod is the best response), validating a variety of feelings (even a “straight up three-year-old tantrum,” as one senior wryly put it), and providing reassurance that we will not abandon them in this important time of transition. Above all, remind them that God is still present and at work in their journey. Consider compiling a list of stories and passages in Scripture that speak to God’s care and concern for our day-to-day lives, and unpacking them together with this group.
  • Teach positive coping skills by encouraging young people to practice self-care, set realistic expectations, and create healthy boundaries. Self-care in quarantine may look different than usual. For some it may be limiting news or social media consumption, but others may feel the need to connect more with friends on social media and stay linked with the outside world through news and other outlets. Encourage young people to stay focused on positive perspectives, such as John Krasinki’s “Some Good News (SGN)”, which recently featured Brad Pitt as a weatherman and hosted a virtual prom.
  • Help young people who are struggling immensely and appear to be in emotional pain find a pastoral counselor or therapist who can provide them with focused, professional help.

How can we acknowledge young people’s hard work and accomplishments?

The pandemic experience has led some young people to reconsider their previously held plans—and some will have no other option but to forego college education in order to avoid debt (already a recognizable hurdle for many young men of color in particular), pursue work, and help support their families in this downward-spiraling economy. These changes may come with a range of mixed emotions, from confusion, fear, grief, disappointment, and anxiety, to excitement and hopefulness. Regardless, young people desire for adults to bless and encourage their future aspirations, and to speak hope into their lives during challenging times.

  • Take an inventory of your graduates' accomplishments over the years and create a video, slideshow, or even a physical memory book to present at their virtual or at-home graduation. Invite key adults to congratulate them and offer a blessing. Or if local schools are already organizing online ceremonies, host a virtual grad party. Don’t forget a festive backdrop!
  • Plan digital church events to honor graduates with care and attention to the unique needs of young people facing unknown futures. Check out our post on Senior Sunday for more helpful ideas on celebrating graduate achievements, and find suggestions for church rites of passage online at Youth Worker Collective.
  • Work discreetly with other church leaders to identify families facing economic challenges due to lay-offs. Gather support from the church community and raise funds for scholarships to be given as graduation gifts that focus on recognizing achievements and character development.
  • Plan for a future celebratory gathering and unofficial graduation with classmates and friends.

How can adults provide support after graduation?

These uncertain times evoke a silent but ever-present invitation for adults to offer continued support through the transition into adulthood. Persistent encouragement will be especially important as young people face a lack of work opportunities, and the possibility of continued social distancing into the fall and beyond.

  • Look at academic support programs serving the needs of less privileged groups. Refer graduates to programs that provide mentors, host life skills workshops, and connect students with resources. You may even help them create a LinkedIn profile or research groups where professionals gather and network.
  • Many graduates will be moving to a new college or young adult ministry, or to the larger adult congregation where they may feel unknown and disconnected. Help guide young people to both form new relationships and maintain their existing relationships with caring adults in order to smooth the transition.
  • Teach young people about the importance of mentorship, and encourage them to strengthen connections with adults they admire and want to learn from. Invite students to thank adults who have helped them grow. Rekindled connections with old friends and mentors can become lifelong relationships and a community of support for the future.
  • Encourage your graduates to talk about their future aspirations and dreams, and ask specifically about the support they would like to receive (spiritual, physical, social, vocational discernment, and so on.)
  • Host a virtual workshop on writing newsletters and prayer support cards to keep caring adults updated with a young person’s latest news—they’re not just for fundraising before short-term mission trips!

Kara Powell challenges ministry leaders in this season to look again at our norms and reflect deeply on the ways we celebrate and support young people during important life transitions. Connecting personally, acknowledging growth and achievements, and committing to support beyond graduation are all helpful ways to honor and love our young people as they take their next steps in this changing world. Let’s be an empathetic witness to our graduates’ journeys. As we do, we will help them learn to overcome future challenges that will arise.

Congrats to the graduates of 2020, the ultimate overcomers!

Tweet this: How can churches be an empathetic witness to young peoples’ milestones in the midst of pandemic? Here are 3 ways to reinvent graduation this year.

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Hannah Lee Sandoval Image
Hannah Lee Sandoval

Hannah Lee Sandoval, ACSW, is a Fuller Seminary graduate (MA Crosscultural Studies, Class of 2010) currently working part-time as a Research Assistant at Fuller Youth Institute with the LABS (Living a Better Story) project, and an Associate Clinical Social Worker at Conscious Living Counseling Center in Torrance, California. Previously, she was working as a high school counselor as well as a children's and youth pastor in Los Angeles. Hannah is happily married to a special education teacher (who's still figuring out online teaching) with whom she raises a delightfully rambunctious toddler who is enjoying both parents working from home.

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