It was the final year of college – the year that was and wasn’t. When Lander University students left campus for Spring Break on March 2, it was impossible to know that their return to class March 9 would be the last week of college life as they knew it.
On Friday, March 13, Lander announced that classes would move online to help slow the spread a pandemic, caused by a disease dubbed COVID-19, which was killing people around the world. Lander joined colleges and universities throughout the nation to postpone and cancel events, including commencement, a rite of passage marking seniors’ achievement and their futures.
For many Lander seniors, the postponement of the ceremony was disappointing but understandable.
Tymia “Mia” Miller
“Everyone who knows me knows that May 13, 2020, at 11 a.m. has had a special place in my heart,” said Mia Miller, of Taylors, Head Resident Assistant at New Hall and Presidential Ambassador for the University. “To know that I will not be walking across the stage at Finis Horne Arena this month is very disheartening. I find comfort in hoping that Lander will be able to have a graduation where I can safely celebrate my college commencement with family, friends, and my peers.”
Instead, Miller, a nursing major and Lander’s Woman of the Year, said she will “be having a commencement from my mailbox” when her degree arrives in the mail.
“I don’t think the pandemic truly hit home with me until my mother, an assistant principal, and sister, a second-grader, were home doing e-learning and truly working from home,” she said.
One day, she will tell her “children and/or grandchildren that times were scary and that watching the news 24/7 will drive you crazy. But I wouldn’t trade the amount time I spent with my family for anything in the world.”
She soon will find herself on the front lines of healthcare during the pandemic. “I will be working at Greer Memorial on a medical-surgical floor,” said Miller. “Because my profession is essential, I am needed, and this is the first time that the pandemic hasn’t postponed my plans.”
“When I found out that commencement had been postponed, my emotions were all over the place. I felt that something was taken away from me that I had worked so very hard for,” said Reiney Sanders, of Greenville, a Presidential Ambassador and president of the dance organization LepUtation from 2017 – 19.
“After my emotions were calmed, I had to remember that this was the safest option for everyone and hopefully we will have our time to shine soon,” she said.
“This pandemic has taught me patience. My faith is very important to me, and it has taught me to trust God more and more through this whole process,” said Sanders, who has accepted a job that will enable her to work from home and ultimately pursue a certification program to become an ophthalmic assistant.
Sanders said she believes everything has a reason. “I think that all of this has happened so that we could slow down and enjoy life – not for the material things, but family and friends.”
Nicole Yaworski, of Lexington said the ceremony marked a “first” for her family. “I am the first in my family to graduate college.”
She’s disappointed that a cousin, who is joining the U.S. Marine Corps, probably will not be able to attend her graduation when it is rescheduled.
A physical education major and recipient of Lander’s Physical Education Discipline Award, Yaworski was wistful. “You never realize how important and meaningful walking across a stage is until the possibility is taken away from you.”
Although her student teaching was cut short during its second phase, Yaworski is looking forward to a career in education.
As Lander’s graduates evaluate their future, Yaworski said, “Our eyes must be open about how we treat the Earth and what all we take for granted — social interaction, walking outside without a mask and hand sanitizer, going to the beach or any public place. I will teach my children and grandchildren to not take these things for granted. Get outside and live.”
Amira Abdelwahab, of Greenwood, who earned Lander’s Civility Champion Award, said she believes that the “time away is going to help make graduation even more special and almost like a reunion of sorts. So, although I expected to graduate on May 13, 2020, I am happy to wait a few more months to be able to fully enjoy the ceremony.”
Being part of history “is a surreal feeling. We are a part of history every day, but this pandemic is so different. We see the mass casualties in China, Italy, New York … most people I know now have some connection to someone who has been affected by COVID-19.”
Her future is on pause. “I plan to move to Washington, D.C., and in a year or two pursue a master’s degree in homeland security. The pandemic is delaying my plan because it seems to be more difficult and unstable to move right now. However, this is just a setback and will give me extra time to prepare for life after college and time to spend with my family over the summer.”
Seniors coped with other challenges, too, including online learning, the loss of special events and missed opportunities with friends.
Joseph Plyler, of Ruby, named Lander’s Man of the Year, found online classes “interesting, to say the least.”
Plyer is a Mass Communications and Media Studies major, who also is pursuing minor degrees in public relations, film studies and music. He said his major required projects with collaboration. “I had a lot of ideas for video projects for my classes and the Lander Film Festival, and it’s hard sometimes not to wonder how they would’ve turned out had I been able to pursue them.”
Even his senior music recital in March required changes. “I was lucky to do it through recording, though nothing quite beats the feel of a live performance.”
Plyler saw his internship plans with the Disney College Program evaporate. Yet, he’s taking it all in stride. “I was going to begin what I hoped would be a fruitful career in the entertainment and hospitality industry before getting my master’s degree and pursuing a career as a professor.
“You never really understand how big a part something plays in your life until it’s gone, and the simple act of meeting with other people is such a huge part that you really feel the absence. I definitely think I’ll spend a few more nights out with friends than I normally would have once we’re able to go outside again.”
Nursing major Emma Jetty, of Effort, Pa., described most of her classes “as a hybrid model for learning … the classes of my nursing courses were minimally impacted, but I did lose nearly 60 hours of clinical experience because of the change. The clinicals were replaced with online contingency plans that tried to meet the objectives we would have met in clinical.”
She still feels a pang of loss over the halt to classes. “You go almost three years sitting in class and clinical with the same 36 people, and suddenly you never see them again. It certainly came as a shock to us all. We have managed to stay in contact through a large group chat where we celebrate job offers and finishing school, but I will be thrilled to see them all again in person when our pinning ceremony is rescheduled.
Several years ago, when Jetty drove from Pennsylvania to Greenwood to tour the Lander campus, she never imagined that her nursing education would culminate with a pandemic. “I’ll be able to say ‘I’m a COVID-19 graduate,’ and people will know exactly what that means,” said Jetty, who will join the nursing staff at Self Regional Medical Center.
For Madison Copeland, of Bishopville, “I went from being on campus every day to having every single one of my classes online. I went from being able to walk to my professor’s office when I had a question to having to send them an email. The pandemic completely changed every aspect of school and my senior year.”
Copeland, a Presidential Ambassador and an orientation leader for incoming freshmen, also had her work in the Office of Admissions and at Greenwood’s YMCA disrupted by the pandemic. Only a few weeks before campus closed, she had been named Lander’s Homecoming Queen. “It was very difficult the way things ended. I got to see some of my friends every day, and now I never get to see them anymore,” she said.
Despite the hectic end to the final weeks of school, Copeland is moving forward with a career at State Farm in Greenwood. “I had my internship there this past semester and was offered a full-time job after graduation. My post-graduation plans were thankfully not impacted by the pandemic,” she said.
Emilie Fuller, of Sumter, a Resident Assistant at Brookside, also missed seeing her professors, but especially the residents of her residence hall. “They were a huge part of my daily life.”
The recipient of Lander’s James Curtis Hartness Diversity Award, Fuller said, “Not being able to help them with their problems or laugh with them about something that happened during their day, has been hard.”
Fuller, who plans to attend UNC-Wilmington for a master’s degree in higher education, also has a job offer at the university to work in their housing department as an Assistant Resident Coordinator. “So far everything is on track for classes to start in the fall,” she said.
She has a different view on life because of the pandemic. “I honestly believe our generation has learned to adjust to things like this. We joke, we look on the bright side. We understand that safety is the first priority. What I’ll remember the most about this whole thing is how people from all over came together with one common goal. It’s beautiful seeing so many people working toward the same goal.”
Music education major Taylor Baxley, of Andrews, will miss singing the alma mater at Lander’s commencement. But the Presidential Ambassador and Turner Music Award recipient particularly laments the abrupt end to her student teaching experience.
“It was extremely difficult to realize that I wouldn’t be going back to the students after schools across the state went online,” she said. “I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to my students, and my ability to get certified was at a standstill as many student teachers like myself weren’t able to finish major requirements for our certification.”
Although the State Department of Education will provide education majors with temporary certification, Baxley said, “I am still applying for positions. There is much that we don’t know about the future of education in our country.”
However, Baxley is looking forward to her career in sharing her love for music with students. “I have been so impressed by teachers across the nation who have adapted to online learning so quickly and who continue to put unbelievable effort into the education and wellbeing of their students. COVID-19 has taught me that as an educator, I need to be prepared for just about anything. This has encouraged me to look into becoming comfortable with online learning tools and strategies, especially as a music teacher whose subject area is so rooted in physical activity and face-to-face interaction.”
Peyton Mennetti, of Boiling Springs, is a business administration major with an emphasis on marketing and management. The pandemic will impact the job market and the economy for a while, she said, and could impact her long-term goals for a career in international marketing.
For now, the Presidential Ambassador said she is grateful that her internship with the Eaton Corporation in Greenwood will be extended. “I try not to think too far into the future,” said Mennetti, an Honors College Medalist and recipient of the Management Marketing Discipline Award. “Many people are struggling right now. They’ve lost jobs. I am fortunate to be working at Eaton.”
The pandemic has given people time to reflect on their current lives and the future. “Spring break was the last good week. And although it was only about two months ago, this period doesn’t seem real,” she said. “Things completely changed.”
Her advice for the Class of 2020 is one of optimism. “We are going to make it, and we have learned compassion that may not have as evident without the pandemic.”
The crisis has provided other lessons beyond the classroom.
Sarah Drake of Columbia, who plans on a career as an educator, said, “I have learned to cherish the time you get to spend with your friends and family because that can be taken away rather quickly as we all have seen. I have learned the importance of a good book and faith to get myself through this harsh and uncomforting time in quarantine.”
Drake, whose mother works as a nurse at a Veterans Administration hospital, said she has learned to respect and admire the essential workers “whom I never before viewed as essential until now. I have viewed my mother in a different way. She is a hard-working woman who has shown her unwavering faithfulness to her country and patients during this time. She has been working 11- hour shifts, five days a week for the past month.”
A history major, Drake sees irony in the fact she is graduating in a historic time. “It is quite surreal to think that I am a part of history right now. My children and grandchildren will read about this pandemic and be able to ask me questions about it, and I will be able to tell them how I lived through it.
“This time should be documented. People should be writing journals about what they are seeing, hearing, and doing during this time. This is history in the making.”
Moriah Payne, of Elgin, was accustomed to juggling a busy life before the pandemic. She worked in Lander’s Office of Student Support Services and returned to her home in Columbia on the weekends to work a part-time job. “I am back home now with my family and my husband. But I’ve missed being with my friends on campus and going to class every day.”
The business major, who would like to pursue an MBA, admits that she was not a fan of online learning. She missed the face-to-face interaction with faculty and discussions with other students. “It was little bit of a shock, but I adapted.”
With courses and exams behind her, she is optimistic. Payne and her husband will celebrate their first anniversary in June and will welcome a new baby later this year into their lives. “I am very excited about what lies ahead of me.”
She has a few words of advice for the many high school graduates – the other Class of 2020. “Keep your head held high. Finish strong. The future is bright.”