Published April 27th, 2021 at 6:00 AM
(Reporter’s Notebook: Flatland reporter Jacob Douglas returned to the University of Missouri-Columbia last weekend to mark a graduation ceremony for the class of 2020 that was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)
COLUMBIA, Missouri — Outside of Las Margaritas in downtown Columbia, I am surrounded by some of my favorite people in the world.
“Finally!” They shout at me and my former college roommate, Joseph Hernandez, as we walk up to the group waiting for a table outside of the restaurant.
No, they are not referring to the fact that most of us have not seen each other in a year due to a pandemic that tore us away from each other before we could offer proper goodbyes. Rather, they are referring to the fact that we were two hours late because of a car accident on Interstate 70.
There was a moment in that standstill traffic on the interstate that we wondered if the trip back was even worth it. Neither of us were walking across the stage during the University of Missouri’s long-deferred graduation ceremony for the class of 2020. We both had our diplomas, and a vague plan of where we would crash that night.
But one thing caused us to press forward — a strange but fitting reunion in the place we called home over four of the most formative years of our lives.
Some old faces and new ones circled around the black fence separating us from the margaritas we are about to over consume.
Juliana Tornabene is a 2020 graduate in convergence journalism, who now lives in Madison, Wisconsin, and works as a digital producer at WMTV. I’ve known her since freshman year, and have walked through J-school hell with her by my side. She brought along her boyfriend, Drew Maatman, who she met during the pandemic. He’s a nice guy. We bump elbows when introduced. So it goes in a COVID world.
“I just physically needed to be back in Columbia for a minute,” she told me. “Just to process everything that has been going on.”
Mariah Doss has been in Columbia this whole time. In fact, she’s been in Columbia most of her life. A “townie” as outsiders liked to call them, Doss graduated from Hickman High School, and was a digital storytelling grad in 2020. She’s here with her girlfriend, Ellie Orton, who she met our last semester of senior year. She and Tornabene set up this whole trip.
“I miss them so much, because they live so far away,” Doss said. “It’s not like I can just go drive to see them.”
Sam Mosher, Sam Zvirgzdins and Caitlin Brenner round out the rest of the group as we slowly find our way to a table much too small to fit nine people.
All of us but Brenner are a part of the cursed class of 2020. We were forced to be lab rats for virtual classes and graduation as we all huddled in our homes, terrified of the unknowns surrounding coronavirus, isolated from the only support system we had known for the last four years.
Finally, after a year without a celebration, we are back to “graduate.” Technically, we’ve all been college grads for a whole year. Most of our diplomas are already framed. We’ve had the celebration with our families, but not the catharsis and closure of a traditional graduation day. That’s why it’s so funny that out of the eight of us, only Tornabene is walking. (All told, about 1,500 graduates from the class of 2020 participated in the formal ceremony.)
The rest of us are pretty much over it.
“The only reason I would want to do it is because people are coming back,” Doss said. “I don’t want to sit through a graduation ceremony by myself, that is just terrible.”
But most people didn’t come back.
Friends living in Hawaii, Minnesota, Tennessee and New Jersey opted out of returning because not all of us have both vaccine shots, or time on our hands to make the trek back home.
As we are leaving the restaurant, Hernandez and I run into some old friends from the Columbia Missourian. We chat about our lives and plans for the immediate future. We ultimately come back to one of our closest friends who couldn’t make it here today, and what we will do for his birthday in June.
To be honest, I miss him more than anyone these days.
Liam Quinn remembers watching Ben Simmons walk across the stage of the NBA Draft Green Room more than he remembers walking across the stage of his high school graduation.
“Graduations in general are just pretty boring,” Quinn said in a Zoom call. “I wasn’t that upset when it got canceled because like, I didn’t want to sit through, you know … shitty speeches.”
Quinn, Hernandez and I were a terrific trio throughout college. We lived together our junior year, and have been great friends since living on the same dorm floor our freshman year. He graduated in 2020 as a magazine writing major.
Currently living at home in Teaneck, New Jersey, the only times we get to “see” each other is Zoom or Discord chats, mainly talking about sports, good food, pop culture, Fortnite or reminiscing about college. Quinn is the most notable missing person from our graduation reunion, and is a perfect example of how strange the timing of all of this is.
When the university announced we would be getting a graduation ceremony the last weekend of April, my phone was ablaze with college friends all asking the same questions.
“Are you going to go back?”
At the time plans for the ceremony were announced in February, my answer was a hard no. I hadn’t gotten the vaccine, my parents hadn’t, my grandparents hadn’t, my sister hadn’t. All of the people who I could have possibly wanted to be there and celebrate with me did not have a shot, and didn’t know when we would get one. It seemed silly to return for graduation and put myself and my family at risk.
That was the sentiment shared by many of my friends. But ultimately, after the longest and most stressful year of our young lives, most people just needed a break.
“Eight months in I was literally losing my mind,” Tornabene said. “Now I’m kind of like, you know what, we’re still here, it’s still happening. But at least I get closure on Saturday.”
Making the biggest transition in our lives while the world seemingly crumbled around us was not an easy thing. Most friends I know (myself included) needed to start doing therapy during the pandemic to work through and process everything that was happening.
Not only were we experiencing the pandemic like everyone else, we also were shot into different parts of the country to either work, or try to find work — something that has not been easy for 2020 grads.
According to Vox, in April of 2020 the unemployment rate among 15-24 year olds was 27.4%. As of March 2021, the unemployment rate among those young people was 11.1%.
Add the isolation from the people who populated your lives for so long and it’s a recipe for a lonely and hard to navigate year.
“I lived with Joseph for three years, so I saw him every day for three years, and I have not seen him in basically a year now,” Quinn said. “And when he left, I didn’t know it was going to be the last time I was going to see him for a long time. You know, usually at the end of the year when we’re packing up the apartment we give each other a hug and say ‘see you in August.’ I didn’t get to hug him goodbye.”
Friday night we walked through the pouring rain to get into a bar. ITap, right across from the journalism school, was a regular place to grab a drink after a stressful day.
This weekend, the bar did not resemble the laid back vibe we all appreciated in school. It was packed to the brim, and we couldn’t find a table. So much for a pandemic. Suffice to say, we were kicked out for occupying too much space as we tried to make our next move.
Our friend Lucy Reis (who none of us had seen in a year) joined us as we slogged to the next spot. Like a bad Thanos quote in an Avengers movie, Shakespeare’s Pizza beckoned to us.
“You could not live with your own failure. Where did that bring you? Back to me.”
We managed to, yet again, find a table too small to fit our group of 10 at Shakes.
“Three pitchers of Blue Moon on me,” I said to the group.
No one protested.
We sat around that small table talking about our lives, reminiscing on old college memories. It felt more like a reunion than a graduation. Already plans to come back for Homecoming in the fall were being set in motion. As the drinks flowed, the conversation became more personal. Laughter and awful Jerry Seinfeld impressions echoed through the near empty bar.
Suddenly, it was 1 a.m. Yikes, we have overstayed our welcome.
“Alright guys, it’s time to go,” the Shakespeare’s employee told our table. We obliged.
After a long walk around downtown and a classic drunken encounter with a stranger disclosing too much personal information to our group, it was time to go home. We had a big day ahead of us. Finally, after a year, we would run through those columns on the quad as graduates.
Flash back to our freshman year, before I knew any of these people.
One of the traditions at Mizzou is the “Tiger Walk.” It’s here where you become a “Tiger” by running through the columns toward Jesse Hall, and get a cup of ice cream for your time. I did this alone my freshman year. I hadn’t made any friends up to that point, but I didn’t want to miss out on a tradition.
Now, Mariah, Juliana, Sam, Joseph and I line up on the quad to run the opposite way to claim a Logboat beer as graduates.
Before we do, Mun Choi, chancellor and president of the university, has some words for the class. After he speaks we take off. Mariah is to my right, and falls down on the other end of the hill opposite of Jesse. We help her up, and claim our prize.
After some photo opps, we say our goodbyes, and talk about reuniting in the near future. It feels like we are close to being in a place where these gatherings can happen more often. We make tentative plans for a weekend visit in Kansas City, and to return for homecoming.
Walking away, it feels like what a cliche graduation day would have felt like. Not a goodbye, but see you later. To the class of 2020, go forth and do great things.
Jacob Douglas covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.