As the Class of 2021 exits their final Zoom classes and bids farewell to their favorite spots on campus, seniors are reflecting on an unusual last year while looking ahead to their next chapter –– one marked by increased competition for jobs and graduate school admissions as they soak up their final weeks on campus.
Two semesters of canceled events, online classes and limited social interaction have contributed to a senior year a world away from the one most graduating students had imagined when they first stepped foot on Cornell’s campus nearly four years ago.
Before the pandemic began, Sofie Wilson ’21 looked to her senior year as a time when she would be more free to explore Ithaca and Cornell.
“I was really waiting until my senior year because that’s when I had time,” Wilson said. “And then COVID happened.”
Some, like Rachel George ’21, hardly spent any time on-campus at all this year — the possibility of a full final two semesters in Ithaca cut short by the pandemic. Returning to campus just two weeks ago, George found staying home while many of her peers decided to study in person to be socially challenging.
“There were times where people were on campus, and I would see my friends just being able to have a bit more freedom in Ithaca than they could have if they were at home,” George said. “And those times, I was like, ‘It would be nice to be able to step outside my house for more than just my CDC-mandated walk.’”
Maria Aono ’21, an international student from Japan who transferred to Cornell her junior year, spent only one semester on-campus without COVID restrictions — her college experience filled with transition after transition, from moving colleges to adjusting to Zoom University.
“There’s just so many transitions, like being an international student but then also transferring and then transitioning to online classes,” Aono said. “You might be able to do it one at a time, but if it happens at the same time, it’s just really hard and stressful.”
Course limitations added even more challenges for seniors who scrambled to fulfill requirements needed for graduation. Skyeler McQueen ’21, a German studies and math major, was among the seniors who found their course options restricted this academic year.
According to McQueen, the limited course offerings of the German studies department this year allowed very little room for choice — out of four classes that she hadn’t yet taken, only two fit into her schedule.
Along with balancing a social life with classes and extracurriculars, job recruitment has also been filled with hurdles, as seniors rush to find jobs in a world of virtual career fairs and high unemployment rates as businesses recover from pandemic-related layoffs and closures.
Wilson said while she will be attending Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine next fall, many of her peers struggled to find jobs. But the workforce wasn’t the only place that saw an increase in competition this year — according to Gabriel Vergara ’21, this year’s grad school application cycle was anything but easy.
Vergara noted that many universities, including Columbia, Brown and the University of Pennsylvania, did not accept graduate students in some fields for fall 2021 to make sure they can fund their current students, heightening application cycle stressors.
Still, many seniors are making sure they use the time they have left as Cornellians well –– and some are even planning on returning to campus next year to experience the events they missed due to COVID.
“Academically, I’m a first vet student at Cornell,” Wilson said, “but socially, in my mind, I’m a senior at Cornell because I missed out on a lot.”
When George returned to Ithaca, she jumped to check off her bucket list before graduation, looking forward to watching the sunset at Stewart Park and taking a hike along Taughannock Falls trails.
With commencement ceremonies less than a month away, graduating seniors are scrambling to take cap-and-gown pictures, watch their final slope sunsets and make last-minute treks to central campus.
As seniors prepare to say goodbye, for some it is not Cornell’s campus, but the people, that they’ll miss the most.
“I’ve made such wonderful friendships here,” Vergara said. “Leaving those people I see every single day that I love and care about and who are brilliant and have such wonderful interests … I think that’s probably what I’m going to miss the most.”