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Opinion: Coping with virtual graduations and pandemic depersonalization

When you go to college in a laundry room and you graduate on a front porch, you don’t know how you are supposed to feel.

The author's daughter Emerald is photographed in the rose garden of the library in Corrales, New Mexico, to commemorate her remote graduation from the University of Colorado Denver. (Photo courtesy Carolyn Dawn Flynn)

The moment my daughter graduated from college, I was knee-deep in dead weeds, my face behind a mask — not to block coronavirus, but to block all the allergens I was stirring up.

This not-pretty moment came as I hacked away at the ragweed in the front yard. Though Emerald was graduating from a university in Colorado, the minute she hit “send” on her last college essay, she stepped out on the porch of her childhood home in New Mexico, which is where she finished her degree.

Carolyn Dawn Flynn

The pandemic sent her home — her twin brother, too. To honor the occasion about to happen, their colleges sent cardboard boxes through Amazon, pandemic giver of all pacifying objects. One day, a gold tassel arrived. The next day, another. 

His school is maroon and gold. He’s an Arizona State University Sun Devil. Her school is black and gold. She is a University of Colorado Denver Lynx. So he’s a cartoon, and she’s a wild feline. 

I can only wish the twins could have afforded to be that silly during college — or their entire childhoods. A pandemic, a president toxic for democracy and an economic crash have made them anything but silly.

Emerald’s college mascot is Milo, whose name is some kind of mashup of Mile High City and LoDo, the location of her campus in Lower Downtown Denver, a place she has not seen since March 2020, when she rushed to pack up her apartment and flee a pandemic. 

Her on-campus university apartment was managing COVID protocols no better than a nursing home or a jail — and probably worse, given that nursing home residents and prisoners are not at liberty to party with anything near the verve of college students who had just been relieved of the burden of going to class in person.

This year as graduation day approached, Emerald’s school tendered this meager offering: If she were willing to drive the 500 miles from Albuquerque to Denver, she could walk across the green in front of Tivoli Station and they would take her picture. 

It would be a way of saying that, for at least a while, she had been here. Some kind of intellectual rigor happened. Friends were made. Mentors were found. It happened here, in this place.

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But then, she was not there. She was not getting coffee in the Russian coffeehouse where, because she is Ukrainian, she could read the Cyrillic alphabet on the menu. She was not biking to class, even on the days it snowed. She was not waiting for the light rail, not hearing the cheers from Mile High Stadium. Not watching the Meow Wolf exhibit under construction.

She was here, back in her childhood home. On a porch where once she strummed a ukulele and sang a song that got her into music school. On a porch where she asked me what she should major in — music or psychology? How would she make her way?

She started her questions here. She answered her questions here. 

A virus changed all the questions.

She and her twin brother graduated in little squares on a screen. Her college sent a video clip of a slide, gold and black, Class of 2021, a recording of a voice solemnly pronouncing her full name as though she were walking across a stage in a cap and gown.

Even as I heard those nine recorded syllables, from a voice I would never know that had taken the time to pronounce my daughter’s name right — I got a chill. That’s the power of commemoration. 

We sat on my front porch, and she cried. 

I remembered the song she played, when she was considering which cover song to submit for a possible music major: “A Girl, A Boy, and a Graveyard.” A young woman named Lucy urgently summons her boyfriend to a graveyard to say, “I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel.”

To graduate from that place 500 miles away, Emerald did a lot of Zooming. She Zoomed from our home in Albuquerque in the utility room as she entered data that collected responses measuring the interrelatedness of empathy, altruism and mindfulness meditation practices. 

It was there, in our laundry room, that she and another professor landed on a significant data point that revealed how we have lost our sense of self during a pandemic. The research paper they will submit explains it as depersonalization, and 11 people at some important academic conference will hear it and launch their own studies about how so many more of us have dissociated from our sense of identity during a pandemic. 

I rather hope they will, because this thing called depersonalization, it’s everywhere.

Depersonalization — it’s our unseen pandemic. We were lonely and disconnected before. Now we are not sure who we are. We’re just a little bit fuzzy around the edges.

What it looks like: When you go to college in a laundry room and you graduate on a front porch, you don’t know how you are supposed to feel.

That day, Emerald posted a photo of herself on Instagram. She was on a college campus in California where she’d applied for a doctorate program in psychology to study why we lose a sense of ourselves and what makes people resilient. 

She explains in the caption — this is not my school — but I’m a graduate. I’ve earned my degree. I may go here.

We have only a past and a future. There is no commemoration of the present.

So all we know to do is stand in the future.

In the song Emerald sang, back when she thought it was music and before she knew it was psychology, the girl in the graveyard tells the boy, “I feel like I’m some kind of Frankenstein/Waiting for a shock to bring me back to life.”

We sing these songs, we have these commemorations, because we don’t want to disappear. We want to be seen.

My daughter is studying this, and somewhere, virtually, someone is giving her a degree in it. If only we all could see.


Carolyn Dawn Flynn of Albuquerque, a former longtime editor at the Albuquerque Journal and university instructor, is a speaker and the author of “You’ve Gone Too Far,” a becoming-of-age memoir, among other works.


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