Class of 2021: Marked by Pandemic but Moving Forward with Faith in God
Catholic seniors reflect on the past year and what they’ve learned.
WASHINGTON — For the class of 2021, the pandemic meant a radically different end-of-college experience, as they became accustomed to online classes before eventually returning to campuses with various COVID restrictions. Many had to think outside the box when it came to employment opportunities and will be working remotely at a new job or entering a field they hadn’t initially anticipated. Amid the challenges these soon-to-be graduates face, five seniors told the Register about the lessons they’ve learned and spiritual growth they experienced during this time.
One experience these students shared was a sudden interruption of their plans and the need to assess how they would move forward.
Maggie Peter, a communication arts major at Franciscan University of Steubenville, was no exception to this change of plans. At the start of the pandemic, Peter was returning from doing mission work for the homeless through Christ in the City in Colorado. She said suddenly being sent away from school gave her an “awareness” of how she was “homeless in my spiritual life in a sense — I had to grow closer to Christ and make him more a part of my home — and then homeless in the fact that I was getting ‘kicked out’ of college.” Rather than return home to her family, Peter took what she called an “opportunity to grow,” staying on campus as a project manager in the marketing and communications department, where she assisted in filming online classes, talks and conferences.
Despite initial worries over her living situation and the general uncertainty of the early days of the pandemic, Peter said that, ultimately, “COVID in a way opened up more doors of opportunity for me because, all of a sudden — I work behind the scenes and do a lot of video production — a lot of things had to be livestreamed, so I was helping livestream Mass on campus. I was helping film different talks with our president. ... During the summer we were busy because they decided to add five new degrees online at Franciscan. I was helping film for all of those.”
“What I realized with COVID is that life still goes on,” Peter said. “I don’t see how we can freeze life and put everything on hold. I still need to work. I still need to get a degree. I can’t just stand still and expect things to just come to me without me doing stuff, so I’m going to try to keep living my life as normally as I possibly can.”
She was very pleased when Franciscan reopened for on-campus, in-person instruction in the fall, saying “the beautiful thing they recognized and that our president recognized is how detrimental isolation can be on young people especially, and I know for myself it does affect me, because I realized at Franciscan just how much more energy and joy and more alive I feel having so many people my age around, and [having friendships with] people I can grow with and have good conversation [with].” Overall, she praised the school for providing students with “community and with opportunity and with jobs,” while still observing COVID guidelines.
She said graduating during this time “helped me to learn to trust God, to lean on him when things got tough. The only thing I can find security and peace in is praying and trusting that he’s going to make something good out of this.” She reflected that, “sometimes, in the midst of bad times, it’s way easier to see the good and see the beauty. I saw through this that God still took care of people. God still provided.” Peter’s goal is to use her skills to “evangelize through the media”; and for this summer, she’ll continue her work on the video-production team at Franciscan University.
Patrick Caughron, a senior at Thomas Aquinas College in California, also took advantage of new opportunities that opened up amid the pandemic. He had to adapt to COVID restrictions while preparing for his upcoming wedding this summer and taking required courses in order to eventually apply to medical school. “One of the nice things about the pandemic actually was, surprisingly, that it allowed me to take a couple classes online over the summer that I would have had to be in person for,” he said. The pandemic also offered him the unique opportunity of “working in a lab which is doing COVID testing over last summer while this was all happening.” His father, Dr. Samuel Caughron, runs MAWD Pathology Group’s laboratory, which has been focusing on COVID testing.
“I got to go in and help with that a lot, and so I knew a little bit more about it, and that was helpful actually, just having conversations with my friends about the virus and its possible effects,” he said. “It was nice to know that I was also helping out, too.”
Caughron was ready to return to in-person classes in the fall, and while COVID guidelines restricting off-campus visitors proved “challenging,” he found himself drawing “a lot closer to many of my friends this year because we had to make do with campus and find things to do with each other, and we had to get creative, too.” He and his fiancée also had difficulties planning their wedding due to COVID restrictions in California regarding the number of people permitted at venues and Masses.
Overall, Caughron said his senior year brought spiritual highs and lows. “I came out of those times both stronger in my relationship with God and stronger in my prayer life,” he said. “There was spiritual growth that probably wouldn’t have happened if that pandemic hadn’t happened, both having to face the difficulties that came with the pandemic and then just having all this extra time where the world’s shut down.”
Creative and Refocused
The pandemic also took its toll on students of the performing arts who had to respond in creative ways to the challenges of having performances cancelled or altered. Michael Stromberg, a musical theater major and artistic director of the student theater company CenterStage at The Catholic University of America, told the Register about his experience during such an unpredictable time.
Stromberg was able to return to campus in the fall as a resident assistant when the university initially limited in-person instruction to freshmen. He praised the university’s “constant push to make sure we have somewhat normalcy.” He said the office of campus activities and office of events and conference services supported CenterStage and enabled them last semester “to put on an in-person play that we did outside with regulations to make sure it was safe with COVID. This semester they supported us again, and we were able to do a fully in-person staged musical that we were able to have some limited audience at. We were also able to record that and get it out so that everyone who wanted to watch it could watch it wherever families were.”
Stromberg also discussed the spiritual growth he experienced amid the pandemic, saying that “something COVID gave me that was a blessing was just time to really reflect and see my own personal blessings that I really had, and it has brought me back to the Church even stronger.”
This semester, he heard from his high school, Mount St. Joseph in Baltimore, regarding a job opportunity to teach theology and work in the campus ministry department, which he decided to accept. “I was able to go on junior retreat last semester with them,” he said, “and it has been just this constant reminder of the blessing of faith. I think having that root in our CUA community is something that really did push us forward through a lot of what we have seen through the past year and a half, with the constant hope and light that we were able to have at the end of the tunnel.”
Faith gives “a center of hope and community and being together and really forming a school that is more than just a place to learn,” he reflected. “You can just learn on Zoom, but you can’t grow together and grow as a person on Zoom; and I think that’s what the school saw, and I think it’s what they’ve successfully done in allowing us to find ways that, even though it is different, we’re still able to have that experience with each other.”
“It’s still a really different world that we’re going into, but I feel excited and rejuvenated coming from the past year and seeing what we are able to still do even though it is this new time of COVID and uncertainty that we’re living in,” he said. “The past year and a half has been able to be that time of reflection — of what really does matter — and going back to having that community and these people that are a part of our lives, that are the center to what makes it all worth it.”
Hannah Cundey, a marketing major at The Catholic University of America, told the Register about how the pandemic created hurdles in her career path, but also helped her to refocus on what’s most important. The biggest challenge initially, she said, was virtual classes, because she “really enjoyed being in the classroom, working with friends, meeting with professors outside of class time, and that was really hard to do in a virtual world.” She was inspired by “seeing the professors try to work as hard as they could to make it accommodating.”
She experienced spiritual growth, as well, saying the time helped her realize “what a gift Mass is,” with “Mass being something that was taken away for so long and then coming back, especially the second semester, here at Catholic University. I really treasured those days when I could RSVP to go or to go in person. Mass has always been a staple for me.”
Cundey had a summer internship fall through due to COVID, and she credited the sales program at Catholic University for their help in job hunting and career discernment. Ultimately, she was connected with the tech company memoryBlue, where she was impressed with the people and the interview process. She’ll be starting as a sales development representative for the company in the summer.
She anticipated that while “the world is somehow coming back to normal, I don’t think it’ll ever be the same normal. ... I’m really interested to see if I go back into the office what that will look like.”
She added, “COVID really brought me to realize who the really important people were in my life and those who were going to stand by me physically, emotionally and spiritually.”
Learning to Rely on God
Bridget Duffy, an English language and literature major at Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia, was studying abroad in Rome when the COVID pandemic hit. She told the Register that adapting to all the changes was a learning experience. She and her fellow classmates who were sent home from Rome discussed how “this is just teaching us to rely on God and work with the moment that he has given us. There’s an element of ‘all I have right now is the present moment in front of me, and God’s given me that, and I have to do with that the very best that I can.’”
Duffy said that virtual learning was “especially difficult” during the end of her junior year because Christendom is “a very person-to-person experience.” The students were very happy to return in the fall to campus, for in-person classes with various COVID precautions in place. As a cross-country runner, she was grateful that the college arranged a league that competed for the local community. She said it “meant a lot to me as a senior who loves running to have that season.”
Duffy is headed to Scottsdale, Arizona, to teach middle school literature and history at a private Catholic school, the Ville De Marie Academy. Heading to Scottsdale was another unexpected move for her, but, she said, “Christendom has a great network, and I was able to utilize that and make some connections even all the way out in Arizona, and I went off to visit and really loved it.”
“The biggest thing I’ve learned is appreciation of the moment I have right in front of me,” she said, “but also this deep awareness of the fact that there’s a master plan; even when it doesn’t feel like anybody knows what’s going on, there is Somebody who knows what’s going on, and he has everything in control.”
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