Ohio State University graduates reflect on pandemic experiences at Sunday commencement

Cole Behrens
The Columbus Dispatch
Mathematics Ph.D graduate Ayer Ababneh receives her doctoral hood Sunday during Ohio State spring commencement at Ohio Stadium.

It was 65 degrees and cloudless Sunday as over 12,000 Ohio State University students packed into Ohio Stadium for commencement and reflected on an academic career marked by the global pandemic.

Justin Yancey, who earned a bachelor’s degree in business, said he was glad to graduate on such a beautiful day.

“This is amazing — the whole class had to deal with the pandemic,” Yancey said. “I don’t know if we lost the college experience because everyone graduating at this time was impacted, but I would definitely say we had a different experience than the one we expected.”

Finishing a degree at Ohio State through the COVID pandemic

In spring 2020, Ohio State University halted in-person instruction for the semester, sending students home and switching to online learning, like most other universities in the country.

The university reopened for on-campus activities in August 2020 (although with masking requirements and heavy restrictions on capacity limits for public gatherings).

Kaleb Parker, 22, who graduated with a degree in finance, said he felt like he ended his time at Ohio State with a meaningful senior year after a period of uncertainty with remote classes.

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“It was a good note to end things on,” Parker said. “Things opening back up, getting out to see friends, being able to go to social events — college is what you make it.”

Alique Wicks, a 28-year-old  Army veteran, earned a degree in psychology. After transferring in August 2020 to finish his degree, he said it was initially challenging to meet people because of the pandemic.

“When I first got here it was hard to meet people and make friends, because everything was on lockdown,” Wicks said. “Things got a little bit easier as the restrictions started loosening up and people were going out more.”

Veronica McGraw, 43, earned a master’s in public administration and leadership. McGraw is also the communications director for the Tennessee Human Rights Commission, an independent state agency responsible for enforcing the state's anti-discrimination laws.

The two-year online program through John Glenn College of Public Affairs, McGraw said, allowed her to pursue a degree in public administration while continuing work in the public sector. While she said she wasn’t affected as much as on-campus students, she felt the instructors went above and beyond to accommodate students during the pandemic.

“I didn’t know what to expect going into this program during the pandemic,” McGraw said. “They’re very, very great with understanding things are still happening to students who aren’t on campus.”

Commencement speaker Patrick Gelsinger, the CEO of Intel, congratulated the students and their families for overcoming the challenges of attending a university during a pandemic.

“And here are you, back after a couple of dreadful years,” Gelsinger said. “Think about it: family, friends and loved one the past three years, what it’s like to be a student — and I say you’ve been through something extraordinary — a global pandemic.”

Ohio State students express worries, hopes about a post-graduate career

Earlier this year, Intel announced it would build what it says will be the largest semiconductor microchip plant in the world. The planned campus in Licking County is estimated to put thousands of Ohioans into technology sector jobs. 

“It’s our jobs to shape technology as a force for good because when it’s good, it’s magic,” Gelsinger said. “And much of tomorrow’s magic will be built right here in Ohio.”

The graduates of Ohio State University will be entering a job market with the lowest unemployment since before the pandemic, hovering around 3.6%. A strong labor market, however, is tempered with increasing inflation that now stands at a 40-year high.

Parker said he was not worried about inflation or the economy affecting his post-graduate job prospects and expressed confidence in the labor market.

“I’m not concerned, the markets always correct themselves eventually,” Parker said. “It will be alright in the long run.”

Other students are pursuing further education. A November 2021 report from the Council of Graduate Schools found that applications for graduate school admission rose 7.3% over the previous, a growth rate above the average 2.5% year-over-year growth from the previous decade.

Apurba De, 22, graduating with a bachelor's in astronomy and physics, said when he looks at the economy, he gets nervous about the job market in his field. Luckily, De said, he plans to further his education with a master’s and doctoral degrees to boost his prospects.

“I’m pretty nervous about (the job market),” De said. “Let’s see how it changes.”

Wicks said he plans to take a gap year and then enter graduate school to get another degree.

“But right now, looking for jobs is tough, I’m not gonna lie,” Wicks said. “It seems like the more you learn, the harder it becomes.”

As a non-traditional student, McGraw said she would encourage anyone with a passion for education to pursue degrees, regardless of age.

“If you have a passion for higher education and think you’re too old — you’re not too old,” McGraw said.

Cole Behrens is a reporter at The Columbus Dispatch covering public safety and breaking news. You can reach him at CBehrens@dispatch.com or find him on Twitter at 

@Colebehr_report