BEIRUT: Mass protests, an unprecedented economic crisis and now a pandemic – the final year of the 2020 graduating class in Lebanon was simply put, turbulent.
While many high school seniors around the globe were shocked and overcome with grief when their classes abruptly came to an end and they stayed home for months, Lebanese students were all too familiar with that scenario.
Back in October 2019, mass protests against the ruling elite and a general unrest across Lebanon kept students out of school and at home for weeks.
When the government ordered schools to shut down back in March in a bid to curb the spread of coronavirus, students were not surprised by that reality, as it was a recurring event for them.
However, they did not know that this time, there would be no return to conventional schooling, as the academic year ended online.
The high school experiences of seniors around the country ended with a thud. It meant they would not be able to experience the last week of school along with the traditions and fun activities that came with it, say their final goodbyes to their friends and teachers, and in general soak up the emotions and the once-in-a-lifetime memories they were supposed to make.
“I thought, what else are we going to be robbed of? We [students] barely had time together,” Ghazi Nasser an 18-year-old high school senior told The Daily Star.
“I felt kind of numb, because I didn’t know how to deal with it, it was happening all over again, so there was a lot of anxiety with it, a lot of hopelessness,” he said.
However, Nasser said knowing that students all over the globe were going through the same experience and the collective grief they all shared was comforting.
Jood al-Saleh, a 17-year-old high school senior told The Daily Star that she and her peers did not expect the school closure to last till the very end of the academic year.
“We were really upset [upon finding out they would not return to school],” she said, adding that both her and her classmates missed out on last-day school traditions like the senior prank.
Many seniors around Lebanon will also miss out on an important rite of passage into young adulthood – their graduation ceremony.
Students dream of their graduation day since kindergarten – the traditional ceremony that represents the culmination of their 12-year experience, wearing a cap and gown and having friends and family cheer for them as they receive their diplomas.
Virtual ceremonies and events just don’t come close to the in-person experience.
When Nasser, a graduate of the American Community School in Beirut, learned he would not have a traditional graduation ceremony he initially felt disappointed.
“I really wanted it [a graduation ceremony], especially when you’re a senior and have been working so hard all these years ... it’s all building up toward that moment when you celebrate,” he told The Daily Star.
“At first there were talks of having a graduation on Zoom [a video communication platform], and that frustrated us because we didn’t want to graduate through our computers,” he said.
However, as many around the country will either get a virtual graduation ceremony or will not have a ceremony altogether, the ACS administration had planned a special commencement ceremony for its seniors, unique to the country’s situation.
Dubbed as “Graduation on Wheels,” the ACS high school seniors graduated with an unconventional ceremony over the weekend. They went to school wearing their cap and gowns, in addition to masks, but stayed in their cars and assembled in the parking lot where a special movie made by them was screened. Afterward the cars adorned with balloons, decorations and confetti drove in a parade toward a small stage where each student left their respective car to receive their diploma, with their family members and peers cheering for them from their cars.
Each student also deposited an item in a barrel used as a time capsule, which will be opened years later for students to reminisce their special day.
Elbow bumps and smiles replaced the traditional handshake while receiving diplomas.
Saleh, also an ACS senior told The Daily Star she was very upset about not having a traditional commencement ceremony “that has been held for the past 108 years,” throughout her school’s history.
“But we had to adjust, and I think our school did such a good job with it [ceremony],” she said.
On the Graduation on Wheels ceremony, Nasser said he initially didn’t know what to expect, and had thought “was it going to feel the same?”
“It was amazing ... it’s definitely something I will remember for the rest of my life,” he said.
As seniors close this chapter of their life amid uncertainty, they will begin the next chapter with more uncertainty.
Universities around the world have taken different approaches in dealing with the coming academic year as the coronavirus outbreak shows no signs of retreating. Some will start fresh semesters online, others will welcome students but with health measures in place and others are still undecided.
Nasser, who will be pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in communications and digital media in Spain said his university will welcome students on campus, but international students who can’t make it will have to start their semester virtually.
“My plan is that as soon as the airport opens in Lebanon, I’ll be on the first plane to Spain,” he said.
However Nasser said that if the airport doesn’t open in time he’s ready to start his semester using the university’s online platform.
Saleh is hoping to attend university either in England or Scotland to study very different majors: psychology or product design, depending on where she gets accepted.
“it’s a scary and unpredictable time, having universities close, and not knowing if I will have classes in the fall is strange,” she said.
Robbed not only of their high school senior experiences, the class of 2020 also stands to miss out on memorable university experiences if the pandemic persists during the upcoming years.
Saleh said she didn’t want “anything else taken away,” from her as she talked about her future plans.
“I don’t want my first year to be online,” she added.
The COVID-19 pandemic has generated fear, anxiety, disappointment and shock among people around the world, but for teenagers transitioning into the next phase of their lives, it can be tougher and more confusing.
Nasser feels like he’s in a daze.
“Sometimes I’m scared and I ask myself if this is all real ... it feels like everything has been thrown off course.”
But sometimes he is filled with a sense of exhilaration for the things to come.
“Every day it’s a mix of excitement and fear and it’s all based on the idea that we don’t know what’s going to happen.”