Grads face degree delays, virtual celebrations and uncertain job market due to COVID-19
20,000 Alberta university students won't walk the stage to collect diplomas this year
Kasey Stojke says she almost quit several times during her five years at the University of Alberta.
Each time, she told herself it would all be worth it, that she would not only get a piece of paper but mark her time there with friends and family in a big celebration.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, things changed.
"It was so strange to write my last exam, it was just bizarre," said Stojke, who is working toward a bachelor of science in kinesiology.
"It was so weird. It was so anticlimactic. It was like I just sat around. I didn't know what to do with myself."
Stojke is one of roughly 20,000 Alberta university students not marking the end of post-secondary degrees this year by walking across a stage in cap and gown. She's one of many worried about an uncertain job market.
In this first stage of the province's relaunch — which excludes the cities of Calgary and Brooks — gatherings are still limited to fewer than 15 people. Institutions have come up with plans to adjust.
Virtual, distanced celebrations
The University of Alberta will have an online event next month, and the University of Calgary has moved its July convocation to the fall.
The University of Lethbridge is sending students a convocation in a box. The kit will include a cap and tassel, the student's parchment along with other goodies. Students are encouraged to post their graduation photos on social media with a hashtag.
Stojke not only must celebrate virtually but her degree itself is delayed. Her practicum is delayed due to the pandemic, which may push back her graduation date to next year.
"What you're working towards, it's such an intangible thing unless you get a job right after," Stojke said.
She had hoped to be the first in her family to graduate from a university program, and to celebrate with them.
"So that was taken away from me, as well," she said.
The graduation milestone can't be easily replaced by virtual celebrations, said Rowan Ley with the Council of Alberta University Students (CAUS).
"It provides a moment of closure for students often, but it's not just important for students," he said.
"It's also very important for parents or grandparents or guardians who have also worked their whole lives to make that moment possible. "
Job market, student debt
For Stojke, the graduation changes have been compounded by worries about the job market.
"I've always been so anxious about getting that part of my life started and now it's just like it keeps getting pushed far off," Stojke said. "I just feel so behind, like I have so much catching up to do."
The council represents more than 100,000 students, and Ley said roughly one-quarter of those were slated to graduate in 2020. Ley said that those students are concerned with the state of public health during the pandemic, and the delays and changes are painful and frustrating.
The big issue the council is hearing is the fear of unknown. Students are worried about what the economy and job market might look like for those ready to enter the workforce, he said.
The federal government has suspended interest on student loan repayments, Ley said. He pointed out that many Alberta students face $20,000 to $30,000 of debt once they graduate.
"That is a pretty big millstone to have hanging around your neck, going out into such an uncertain labour environment," he said.