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University of Toronto Hosts First In-Person Graduation at Convocation Hall Since Pandemic

Originally published June 14th, 2022.

TORONTO — Although she said she was given sufficient personal protective equipment kits from the university, Susan Dong feared for her life when she started clinical rotations as a University of Toronto medical student. She started her rotations around the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, before a vaccine was created. She said she saw patients in near-death states of living, hospitals overloaded and staff overwhelmed.

Dong said she found the experience overwhelming and seriously doubted whether she was cut out to be a medical professional. Most medical students wouldn’t be tested the way Dong was though, with the start of a global viral outbreak that spanned years. But on June 2, she was the first class to have an in-person graduation since the pandemic at the university’s Convocation Hall, marking a triumph for her graduating class.

“With all the support of our faculty as well as my classmates and my friends, I think we were able to get through it and come out stronger than ever,” said Dong.

The typical rite of passage for students was paused worldwide due to the pandemic, but Dong’s graduation marks a return to normalcy after two years of major milestones like these being disrupted.

According to a report by Statistics Canada, of over 100,000 postsecondary students surveyed across the country, 26% of those students reported that their courses or programs were canceled by their institutions, affecting their ability to either graduate or graduate on time. All Toronto universities postponed their 2020 and 2021 graduation ceremonies due to the pandemic, including York University and Toronto Metropolitan University.

Family members and loved ones of students were affected as well. Deb McDermott came from her home in London, Ontario with her husband and son to see her daughter Miranda McDermott graduate after two years of studies during the pandemic.

They were among many families and loved ones waiting in long lines to get into Convocation Hall, with lineups snaking down streets to accommodate social distancing. Even graduating students waited in long lines to get in. Bouquets of flowers in buckets half-filled with water were sold outside of Convocation Hall. Tents and indoor tables were set up for students to pick up their caps, gowns and sashes nearby.

Graduates and all guests had to adhere to mask mandates but did not have to adhere to social distancing in Convocation Hall, sitting next to each other inside. Some graduates took their face masks off when they walked the stage after their names were called to receive their degree.

“It’s been such a difficult past two years for them, you know, trying to learn and do their clinical studies and in the pandemic. And they are able to be here and witness it, this is fantastic,” Deb McDermott said.

Living in London, she and her husband were unable to be physically present to support their daughter, but she said she was always a “phone call away.”

International students experienced the same challenges with loved ones from afar. Faye Pu had her graduation from the university’s business program Rotman Commerce, but her family was unable to join her because they are still under lockdown restrictions.“They’re in Shanghai, in China. Because of the lockdown, they were not able to attend the in-person ceremony but they were using the online version of the ceremony,” she said.

Although her graduation started in the morning, she spent the entire day around Convocation Hall taking pictures with her classmates adorned with their graduation flowers, caps and gowns and the furry white and orange sashes that represent Rotman Commerce.

The University of Toronto first shut down in-person learning across its three campuses on March 16, 2020 in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. It later announced cancellations for all in-person graduations for the 2020 and 2021 graduating classes. The university didn’t continue in-person learning until Jan. 31, 2022.

According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Canada, 59% of Ontario students reported feeling depressed about the future because of the pandemic and 39% reported that it made their mental health worse.

Despite the change, some graduates thrived in the new conditions.

“We were all going through this sort of shared experience both working within the university during this difficult time and also studying at the same time,” said Alanna Biason, who graduated with a masters in education from the university’s teachers’ college OISE on June 14.

University of Toronto’s Professor Emeritus Barrie Bennett said not having a graduation does not necessarily negatively impact students. But to have one after two years of a pandemic is exponentially uplifting.

“It's a time to bring closure to one phase of one's life,” said Bennett.

The University of Toronto plans to hold convocation ceremonies for its 2020 and 2021 graduates, who did not have a regular ceremony due to the pandemic, allowing them another chance to graduate. Although Statistics Canada reports many students had work prospects disrupted by the pandemic, Susan Dong said after working her clinical rotations in general medicine, she’s specializing in the complete opposite.

“I actually- thankfully- matched with an OBGYN, so I'll be starting that in Toronto. We rotate through different hospitals in Toronto,” she said.

After witnessing so many deathly circumstances because of COVID-19, she’s now focusing on supporting women in their birthing process.

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