When Bellarmine University transitioned campus life online this spring to prevent the spread of COVID-19, its students became part of a national collegiate upheaval, a defining crisis of their generation.
In the U.S., at least 1,149 colleges and universities closed or moved to virtual learning, affecting more than 14 million students.
Bellarmine students were asked to move from residence halls, all classes were moved online and commencement was delayed from May 9 to Dec. 19, all difficult changes for a university that takes pride in its highly personal, close-knit community.
We asked some of our graduates to describe the experience of graduating now, and unsurprisingly, their emotions ranged from disappointment and loss to relief and gratitude.
"Suddenly this story you’re building in your head doesn’t happen..."
Audrie Lamb, a communications major from Mayfield, Ky., said she was upset when COVID-19 changes were initially announced, knowing the virus would likely change everything.
“For seniors, especially, you kind of have this silent story you tell yourself that all four years you’re building up to this moment,” she said. “When suddenly this story you’re building in your head doesn’t happen,
it creates cognitive dissonance. At first the transition was hard, because I learned I wasn’t going to get to do things I wanted to do, and I had so many things I wanted to celebrate with my friends, so many traditions I was so excited to experience
my last of.”
Lamb was highly involved in campus organization, including Student Government Association, BraveBU and the Honors Program, and she helped found a sustainability committee. She valued her daily classroom discussions and happily lived in residence halls
the last two years.
For her, COVID-19 too quickly closed a way of life she’d treasured, without offering the chance at a proper goodbye.
“I think what I eventually had to do was process grief and realize, in a way, I was grieving this loss,” she said.
She said journaling has helped, along with recognizing things to be grateful for and checking on friends to make sure they’re OK. She said staff and faculty have reached out to her. Her work-study supervisor in the Department of Communication even
brought her groceries.
“When you’re in college, you’re on the go, go, go, and then all of a sudden we were told to slow down and stay at home,” she said. “I learned a lot about giving myself grace, and allowing myself to feel things and process
them, and know that is OK.”
Emily Compton, a political science major from West Point, Ky., about 10 miles south of Louisville, commuted from home all four years, but was still heavily involved in campus life, including SGA, the Pre-Law Society, Political Science Club and peer tutoring for statistics.
She said the biggest heartache for her is the loss of the May 9 commencement, especially as a first-generation graduate. She was looking forward to donning cords with her regalia to represent her campus organizations - important symbols of her time at
“That ceremony is about closure,” Compton said. “We understand the seriousness of the situation and that people everywhere are suffering a lot more than we are. We get it. But it is hard.”
Compton is heading to the University of Louisville this fall for law school on a full scholarship. She said she plans to participate in Bellarmine’s Dec. 19 commencement, but she worries she might have emotionally moved on by then.
Through the challenging times, however, Compton said Bellarmine’s compassion has shone through, making the experience easier.
“Bellarmine’s communications have been very sensitive and very understanding, and that in itself is comforting,” she said. “It’s been such a positive message of, ‘We will get back together, just not now,’ and
that helps a lot, too.”
Compton said the transition to online classes was smooth, with professors making adjustments as needed to keep everyone on track. Still, she missed her post-finals traditions.
Usually after all exams are over, she sits in her car on Bellarmine Hill, with her windows down, listening to a favorite song. Then, she meets friends at a restaurant before they go bowling or have a game night and celebrate all weekend.
“It was so weird we couldn’t do that,” she said. “It wasn’t the same.”
Sierra Chamberlain, a radiation therapy major from Hamilton, Ohio, said she missed not being able to say goodbye to everyone before traveling home.
“To be honest, it’s been really difficult,” she said. “Me living in Ohio, not getting those final goodbyes to all my friends who are not in Ohio, that has impacted me.”
Chamberlain participated in numerous campus organizations and helped plan events through the Student Activities Center. Before the pandemic, she had done lots of work in helping coordinate Senior Week - the week between finals and commencement that is
normally chock-full of celebratory events at Churchill Downs and other Louisville landmarks.
“Not having that last week when we didn’t have classwork or finals, when we could just spend time with each other, has been hard,” she said.
That said, Chamberlain is keeping busy preparing for her board exams and feeling optimistic about her future. She plans to move to Columbus, Ohio, for a therapy position at a cancer center.
“Anyone that I’ve worked with at Bellarmine has reached out to me and said how proud they are of me and how much they wished there were different circumstances,” she said. “Those phone calls and text messages have made it a lot
easier. They’re all being really supportive. I’ve appreciated that a lot.”
“I learned a lot about giving myself grace, and allowing myself to feel things and process them, and know that is OK.”