Pandemic Graduates 2024: Starting College in 2020 Took Grit and Resiliency

After the COVID-19 pandemic upended high school graduation in 2020, Kaitlyn Werner of Bonita, California, had to make the decision whether to begin her first year at Kent State University from a computer screen in her Bonita, California, home.

Due to some pre-existing medical conditions, it was safer for Werner to take her courses remotely to avoid the likelihood of catching the highly contagious coronavirus.

However, she was disappointed that she couldn’t have the traditional high school senior year or freshman college campus experience that she had been looking forward to.

Here is Werner, a senior in the College of Aeronautics and Engineering, speaking with Kent State Today about making this difficult decision.

Werner persevered through an extremely tough freshman year that included taking classes online that were at 5:45 a.m. Then in the Fall of 2021, she belatedly adjusted to in-person classes at Kent State.

For her tenacity and determination during the pandemic and afterward, Werner will join hundreds of other “pandemic graduates” as they cross the stage for Spring 2024 commencement ceremonies this week.

Pandemic Generation

Manfred van Dulmen, Ph.D., senior associate provost and dean for the Graduate College, noted that there is no generation of young people in recent history who have gone through a major health pandemic in the U.S. 

“They should really be proud in having navigated uncharted territory and being able to navigate it this well,” said van Dulmen, who was the co-chair of the Pandemic Leadership Committee and chair of the Reopening Committee. “They succeeded in light of adversity and found their way and navigated temporary policy changes such as classes being remote and some classes being in person. It was ever changing. The ability to navigate that sets them up well to deal with many challenges in the future.”

Van Dulmen, who at the time of the pandemic was the associate provost for academic affairs, said in March 2020, most everyone thought the university we would be fully back in operation within three to six months and that after summer of 2020, the campus would reopen. But they soon found out that this was only the beginning of the pandemic.

“There was a readjustment and then we realized that there is no way to know when this is going to end and that it is not in our control, but that everyone can contribute to reducing risk,” van Dulmen said. “I think there was a real shift then. We thought about how can we move forward in a way that supports everyone. We focused on being flexible, equitable and reasonable. That became sort of a motto throughout the pandemic.”

Disconnection and Disappointment

Werner remembers feeling so disconnected from the community that she had discovered while participating in the College of Aeronautics and Engineering’s Nikki Kukwa Memorial Aeronautics Camp for high school students. That’s how she became aware of the College of Aeronautics and Engineering.

“After touring some other schools, Kent State just felt the most like home to me,” Werner said. “ I wanted an environment that I thought I could thrive in.”

Once she arrived on campus, she started out in the professional pilot concentration, but changed to the aviation management concentration. She has continued to fly and completed her private pilot certification in Wadsworth.

She also became a Student Success Leader, which she said showed her “a lot of what she missed her freshman year.”

Dance Classes Gave Her A Reprieve

Senior Markus Blankenship, who is set to graduate in August 2024, had a different experience than Werner. The communications studies major from Austin, Texas, graduated from high school in 2019 before taking a gap year. The pandemic did not wreck her senior year activities.

But when the pandemic hit in March 2020, for several months before college she did have to cut all her activities because her parents are immunocompromised, and she did not want to risk transmitting the virus to them.

Blankenship minored in dance, enabling her to come to Kent State in the Fall of 2020 to take her dance classes.

Markus Blankenship of Austin, Texas, started at Kent State during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I had a unique experience being on campus from 2020 to 2024 because every year after 2021 people would say ‘Oh it finally feels like Kent again.’” Blankenship said.  “If you asked me in 2021, I would probably say ‘Oh this feels like the college experience’ and if you asked me again in 2022, I would say the same thing. So, I’m going to tell you in 2024, I feel like now, finally it feels like the college experience.”

Blankenship credits her previous participation in a touring performance ensemble for several summers helped her develop the grit and resilience to deal with the difficulties of taking online classes. And her online classes taught her how important it is to make connections with people.

During that time of isolation, it kind of prompted me to go the extra mile and try to reach out to people in my classes and try to build those relationships with professors and students, even though if that wasn't particularly in a face-to-face setting,” Blankenship said.

Masking, Testing and Vaccinations

Kent State students did a great job of complying with the various rules that in some cases changed from day-to-day, according to van Dulmen. It was sad that they had to go through this experience, but it was also a testament to what the future holds.

“The students have shown such remarkable resiliency,” van Dulmen said. “It makes me have so much confidence in the future and who the future contributors are to Northeast Ohio and the world.”

POSTED: Wednesday, May 8, 2024 12:42 PM
Updated: Wednesday, May 8, 2024 02:43 PM
April McClellan-Copeland
Provided by Kaitlyn Werner and Markus Blankenship