Class of 2020 shares what it's like to graduate during a pandemic

10 high school and 10 college graduates discuss how they plan to celebrate a graduation season unlike any other.

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By Caitlin Fichtel and Suzanne Ciechalski

Graduation season is full of traditions: caps and gowns, signs and advertisements, "Pomp and Circumstance."

However, this graduation season is unlike any other for both high school and college seniors as they prepare to celebrate their milestones amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

NBC News’ Social Newsgathering team spoke with 10 high school and 10 college graduates about what it's like to graduate during the pandemic, and how their celebrations are different than they initially planned.

Here's what they had to say.

Freja-Jane Kjeldseth: Yankton High School, Yankton, South Dakota

Freja-Jane Kjeldseth was disappointed when she found out Yankton High School was postponing their in-person graduation ceremony and instead holding a virtual ceremony.

However, her virtual ceremony turned out to be better than expected, complete with a video message from Olivia Newton-John; the school was set to perform "Xanadu," her 1980 song with ELO, before the pandemic hit.

While Kjeldseth said the in-person ceremony, which may be held in July, might not be the same since some of her classmates are moving within the next few weeks and joining the military, she is still able to find the bright side.

“Keep your head up, keep a positive mindset because it sucks, but it’s a unique experience," she said. "Nobody else has ever had this kind of thing...and it’s a story you can tell your kids and grandkids when you're old."

Matthew Harrison: Tufts University

Matthew Harrison celebrated his graduation from Tufts University through Zoom, which included students having their names read aloud along with any honors they received.

“It was not as bad as I think I was expecting it to be,” Harrison said. “It was nice to be able to celebrate with my parents, that part felt typical.”

Still, he was disappointed he wasn’t able to celebrate with friends this spring, but is hoping to be able to do so at a later date when Tufts reschedules the in-person commencement ceremony.

Matthew Harrison graduated from Tufts University via Zoom but still wore his cap and gown at home.Courtesy Matthew Harrison

Emily Polk: Odessa High School, Odessa, Texas

Seniors at Odessa High School are participating in a virtual graduation ceremony this weekend. The school obtained a photo and quote from each student and plans to stream the ceremony online so students can watch at home with their families.

“I can watch it on TV but I kind of wish I could have a graduation ceremony [in person]," Polk said.

She still plans to celebrate virtually with her extended family.

“I plan on having a video chat that way my family members can see me with my diploma and everything. They can send me wishes. Later I plan on having a party whenever we’re out of quarantine,” she told NBC News.

Kristopher Hastings: The College of New Jersey

Kristopher Hastings is thankful that his entire family will be able to share in his graduation experience from across the country.

“It’s interesting, I’m the first in my family to get a college degree,” he said. “I’m more happy that they get to celebrate it with me. That’s what it’s all about, getting your family around to celebrate your accomplishments because without your family, you can’t get to where you are.”

Hastings' brother and nephew even plan to tune in from Alaska, while he celebrates at home with his parents and girlfriend.

Mychaela Wagner: West Brunswick High School, Shallotte, North Carolina

Mychaela Wagner was set to graduate with her class of over 300 students on June 6. Instead, the school moved the ceremony to May 27, where they will have small groups of students graduate at a time throughout the day; the school also plans to have a parade on June 6 to “recognize and celebrate all the seniors at our high school,” Wagner said.

Wagner and her family are still planning to celebrate virtually with friends and family.

“My mom set up a Facebook event and she was telling everybody, all friends and family, that they can send something, just to show some appreciation with everything that’s going on,” she said.

"It’s not the end of the world and there are ways we can make it better." Wagner added. "Everybody will rise up and get through this.”

Kendall Kahn: Appalachian State University

Kendall Kahn embraced the fact that she and her friends had virtual commencements this year, because they got to listen to each other’s ceremonies, which they wouldn’t have been able to do if they had in-person graduations.

Kahn is graduating from the college of education, but she has friends in the college of health sciences.

“That was very special,” she said. “I feel like they did a really good job celebrating us and making it a special moment.”

While Kendall Kahn didn't get to celebrate her graduation in person with her friends, she was still able to throw up her cap after she graduated virtually from Appalachian State University.Courtesy Kendall Kahn

Malakai Mills: Hammond High Magnet School, Hammond, Louisiana

Hammond High Magnet School seniors graduated virtually on May 12, though it wasn’t exactly the ceremony Malakai Mills had in mind.

“It still didn’t really feel like a graduation,” he said. “I’ve worked for 4 years to get to this point, I did the tests, I wrote my essays, spent late nights trying to study and I was excited, I was ready for my chance to walk across the stage and get my diploma, and for my family to be there. It’s something that’s special. I worked hard for it and it was nothing like I was expecting or hoping for.”

Mills and his family watched the ceremony together, and he even took pictures in his cap and gown.

His family is “already talking about putting together a little party in our backyard with our family that lives in the area.”

Amanda Madenberg: Cornell University

Cornell senior Amanda Madenberg will celebrate her graduation with family over Zoom this year, after her commencement ceremony was postponed.

She and her friends have kept in touch through Zoom and FaceTime after the school’s in-person classes were canceled for the remainder of the spring semester, and she said they’ll likely get together for some kind of video chat to celebrate their graduation this spring.

While her final semester has been manageable, Madenberg said she’s had to readjust many of her expectations for her senior year.

“There’s also a part of me that feels really robbed of all these experiences I was supposed to have this semester,” she said. “I was really looking forward to it for years, since I started at Cornell.”

Adilene Tolentino: The University of Utah

Adilene Tolentino has been waiting to walk across the stage since she graduated at the end of the fall 2019 semester. But now, she has to wait until next December to have a traditional college graduation.

"We didn’t get a ceremony because we had to wait for spring of 2020 to be done...I already had to wait five months to get a ceremony,” Tolentino, 22, said.

Her school had a virtual ceremony to celebrate 2020 grads in early May, but Tolentino didn’t attend, choosing to instead spend the day with her family, who've been keeping her spirits up.

"My parents just reminded me that it wasn't really about the ceremony. It was about my accomplishment of getting my degree and finishing school," she said. "At the end I really did get what I wanted. I have my degree and I'm done with school."

Lauren Elizabeth Louton: Lake Hamilton High School, Pearcy, Arkansas

Lauren Elizabeth Louton described her senior year as “a bit disappointing.”

“I didn’t see it coming and I wasn’t prepared for it," she said of the pandemic and related shutdowns.

Seniors at Lake Hamilton High School were supposed to graduate in-person on May 15. However, they graduated virtually on May 22, with the hopes of having an in-person ceremony on June 26.

Each student provided the school with a photo in their cap and gown, as well as a thank you or appreciate note that could be read aloud during the ceremony.

Louton and her family haven’t made any official celebration plans, but they hosted a Facebook event where family and friends were able to watch the ceremony virtually with them.

They’re “holding out hope there’s going to be an in-person one," she said.

Lauren Elizabeth Louton didn't have an in-person graudation ceremony but still wore her cap and gown as she watched the virtual one her school held.Courtesy Lauren Elizabeth Louton

Joel Chavez: Pyramid Lake High School, Nixon, Nevada

Seniors at Pyramid Lake High School are planning to attend a drive-through graduation ceremony on May 29, except for Joel Chavez, who left Nevada to quarantine with his family in Texas at the beginning of the pandemic.

Chavez told NBC News he's sad he's missing out on the ceremony, because he won't be able to see any of his friends and teachers who've supported him this year. However, he still plans to watch the ceremony on FaceTime with some of his family and friends from Texas.

He is hoping to have a get-together with his school friends once restrictions ease up but said in the meantime, “just keep going forward. Tough times don’t last, tough people do."

Ryan Corcoran: West Virginia University

For Ryan Corcoran, 21, a virtual commencement was not ideal, nor what he imagined for the end of his college career. Though his school held the commencement online, Corcoran said, “it was a little underwhelming because it wasn’t how any of us pictured graduating.”

“This semester was very hard on us. One of our friends passed away in January so it kind of affected us in a bad way,” Corcoran said. “She was supposed to graduate with us. It didn’t start off great, then the quarantine began and it just kind of ended our senior [year], which was supposed to be about being able to spend time with friends you made for the last time in an easy setting because we all live so close.”

Corcoran was able to celebrate the virtual commencement with his parents, his roommate’s family and a few other friends who were still in town. West Virginia University invited graduates back for a traditional ceremony in December, he said.

Ryan Corcoran and his friends lost one of their friends at the start of the semester so they decided to quarantine together during the pandemic to help each other get through the loss and were able to celebrate their virtual graduation together.Courtesy Ryan Corcoran

Kadence Stonecypher: Rockmart High School, Rockmart, Georgia

Students at Rockmart High School were set to graduate on May 22. Instead, the school held a parade and rescheduled the in-person ceremony for June 22, where they are planning to allow each student to bring four guests.

"We’re hoping to do it [a graduation ceremony] in person if the gathering ban is lifted but if not, we’ll do three people coming in at a time to hangout and then rotate out," Stonecypher said. “My family doesn’t feel they should have to put off a party for me because of what’s going on.”

Sean Mullee: Miami University, Oxford, Ohio

Sean Mullee's class received a specially-made virtual graduation this year, designed by an alumnus who works for a game development company. It was a virtual space students could go in with an avatar and talk to others, such as classmates and professors.

“Given the circumstances, I really enjoyed it. I really respect and appreciate all the work Miami did,” Mullee said. “They’re clearly doing the best they can given the circumstances.”

Inside the room were three virtual screens: one flashed names of all the graduates with a slide for each one and another slide flashed faculty members. The middle screen showed the virtual ceremony. Mullee’s friends and family used Twitch to watch it.

His school is planning for a traditional ceremony in the fall, Mullee said.

“Obviously it wasn’t what I hoped or expected for sure, but given the circumstances I think I had the best year I could’ve,” he said.

Gabrielle Pierce: Xavier University of Louisiana

Torrence Burson was heartbroken when he learned his daughter, Gabrielle Pierce, would have her college graduation postponed this year.

"That’s something that we all had been waiting on,” Burson said. “It was very difficult to see her that way."

So, he got to brainstorming and put together a graduation “ceremony” in the family’s driveway -- complete with a stage he got from a local rental company and a speech by Pierce's aunt.

“I was just very humbled that my dad would do this for me, to have a stage for me, have my family come out," Pierce, 23, said. "I was just beyond thankful for everything."

Gabrielle Pierce's father set up a graduation ceremony for her in their family's driveway after Pierce's in-person commencement was postponed.Courtesy Gabrielle Pierce

Richard Shaw: Centennial High School, Roswell, Georgia

Centennial High School held a virtual graduation as well as a drive-by photo opportunity on May 20. Each senior was able to drive by the school with one car of family members and get out to take a photo on the stage with one family member. There was also a virtual graduation streamed live on YouTube.

Shaw’s family threw him a virtual graduation party, complete with a Facebook page, where his family members were able to log on and wish him well. He said his immediate family spent time outside and had a cookout.

Miriam Ludwig: Ithaca College

Miriam Ludwig’s school is planning for an August commencement, but held a virtual graduation for seniors in the meantime.

“It doesn’t really feel real, it kind of felt like I was playing dress up and [it] was practice,” Ludwig said. “I don’t think it hit me, maybe when my diploma comes in the mail it’ll all feel real, but it didn’t really feel like it was happening.”

Ludwig’s sister let her borrow her cap and gown for the virtual ceremony, since she doesn’t have hers yet, and started the day with brunch. She later walked out in the cap and gown to music and also walked through her yard, where her family hung signs and banners congratulating her.

“I think I’m looking forward to getting to see my professors and thank them and have closure with getting to say goodbye to my friends [at the actual ceremony],” Ludwig added.

Miriam Ludwig graduated from Ithaca College virtually but didn't receive her own cap and gown in time, luckily, her older sister had an extra one she was able to borrow to watch the ceremony.Courtesy Miriam Ludwig

Benjamin Eisenberg: Miami Arts Studio 6-12 @ Zelda Glazer, Miami, Florida

Miami Arts Studio is planning a parade in the beginning of June to honor the senior class. Ahead of the ceremony, the school organized a drive-by caravan where they brought each student their cap and tassel, including Benjamin Eisenberg.

"It was really great because my school is a good 45 minute drive from my house," Eisenberg told NBC News.

While the virtual celebration isn’t exactly what Eisenberg and his friends had in mind, he's still optimistic about graduation.

"All I can say is at this point just look at the positives of every situation," he said.

Miami Arts Studio senior Benjamin Eisenberg is celebrating with a virtual graduation in June and hoping to have an in-person ceremony later this year.Courtesy Neil Eisenberg

Julia DeLeon: North Central Texas College

Julia DeLeon said getting through school has been a “long, long journey” for her, so when she learned her graduation would be rescheduled as a virtual ceremony, she was disappointed.

“I was kind of sad because I wanted to graduate with my accomplishments,” said DeLeon, who’s receiving her associate’s degree in arts.

She’s still planning to celebrate the special day with her family, and said her mom is keeping their plans a surprise until then.

“I’m hoping it will be a great accomplishment for my journey that I’m going through,” DeLeon said, adding, “hopefully once June comes around we’ll be able to actually celebrate with my extended family and friends.”

Dominic Austin: Coral Shores High School, Tavernier, Florida

Seniors at Coral Shores High School are set to graduate virtually on May 27 during a YouTube livestream.

"At first I was kind of sad, not being able to have prom, not being able to walk across the stage," Dominic Austin said.

However, "Our graduation class is receiving more recognition than the last century or so has ever received," he said. “I think it’s something I lived with and something I can say I’m proud to live though and create a bunch of good stories.”

Austin plans to throw a party with friends and family in person at a later date, once some restrictions are lifted.