chrystal-story3.jpgThis isn’t how any of us imagined spending our last few weeks as Candler students. For me, it feels slightly trivial to lament the cancellation of commencement in the middle of a pandemic. But it’s not just the ceremony that I’m grieving. Graduation (and the time leading up to it) was supposed to feel like a period of jubilee, a moment to celebrate the time that we had as Candler students to then be ushered into the world as graduates, ready to go wherever God called. Like being on a rollercoaster and preparing for the last but most exhilarating loop, I was excited, nervous, ready to get off this crazy ride, but thankful to have gotten on all at the same time. 

At the end of February, a classmate and I found ourselves reflecting on the highs, lows, and woes of the academic year so far. At the end of our conversation, we decided that we were going to reclaim the time we had left by focusing all of our attention on finishing well while celebrating along the way. But when March finally came, our lives, individually and as a community started to change. We suddenly heard about this thing called COVID-19 with an increased frequency of international stories flooding our social media timelines and nightly news shows. Then, as the days went by, we started to hear reports out of other countries detailing how Corona swept viciously through their streets. We watched borders close and entire cities be placed under quarantine. But we still weren’t sure how we would be impacted just yet.

chrystal-story4.jpgWeek two of March came, and we were thankful for Spring Break. We all desperately needed it because we thought that we’d be right back to the Candler swing of things: shuffling from early morning classes to chapel service to our 12:00-12:50 p.m. meetings over lunch from Gusto and Zoes, and then back to afternoon and evening classes followed by our extracurricular gatherings.

Meanwhile, other major universities and academic institutions were starting to adjust their schedules and end of year plans. “Not Emory,” we thought, until an email was sent from the Provost’s Office stating that we would have another week of Spring Break and then return to classes in a virtual learning format. A few of us celebrated at this point because we didn’t know the challenges that would soon come with using Zoom and Canvas for almost everything. And yet, we were still optimistic and hopeful that a few weeks of virtual learning and physical distancing would flatten the curve enough for our return and for commencement exercises to happen as planned. That is until March 18, when we received the Spring 2020 Commencement Update from President Sterk detailing Emory’s decision to cancel.

I quickly texted my family so they could start rearranging their travel plans. Then I checked in with my Candler cohort to see how they had taken to the news. Then I sat with it.

Photo-4-BowTie-Photos,-LLC-.jpgWhat does it mean to have worked hard for three long years, to have seen the finish line fast approaching, and then for it to slowly and swiftly be swept away? I totally get the hows and whys of the decisions, but we’re losing a lot in the process. There was the 2nd annual Candler Dodgeball Tournament that my team “Don’t Stop Ball-living” (pictured in victory) was going to dominate once again. My Candler twin-friend Cecelia Jefferson was supposed to preach her first sermon in Cannon Chapel. I was looking forward to fangirling over Emilie Townes at the Anna Julia Cooper Lecture. The Candler International Student Association (CISA) was preparing for its annual Seoul-to-Soul celebration, and the Candler Baptist Community was planning to challenge other denominational groups in our first-ever Bible Bowl. Sacred Worth had fun plans for a 5K in honor of Dean Jonathan Strom, playfully named the “Dean Strom Strut.”  And, among other things, we didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.

But, even in all of this loss, I still have to look forward to what’s left to reclaim. Working alongside Dean Khalia Williams in the Office of Worship for the past three years has taught me to be prepared for when things go awry. And when everything starts to fall apart and look nothing like what was expected, it becomes an opportune time to think creatively about what can still be.

Prior to COVID-19, my classmate Jasmine Jones and I were working with the Office of Advancement and Alumni Engagement to launch #20daysofgiving, this year’s Senior Class Gift Campaign. With the recent turn of events, there were some choices we had to make. Like everything else, we had to cancel our in-person meetings and the fun activities we had planned. But, as we sat on another Zoom call, we thought about all the ways that celebration could still be possible.

chrystal-story1.jpgWhat emerged from our conversation were new plans for what we’re now calling the #20daysofcelebration. Counting down to May 9, the original date of our Candler diploma ceremony, members of the Senior Class Celebration Committee are now posting a daily prompt in Candler’s Graduating Class of 2020 Facebook group and on the Life@Candler website. Whether it’s making a video saying goodbye to Candler or posting photos of our favorite seminary memories, the prompts are designed to prepare the way for graduation by providing opportunities for fun and for reflection as a graduating class. In addition, we’ll also have several virtual hangouts featuring some of our favorite Candler staff and faculty.

These virtual celebrations can in no way replace what we originally planned, but I still have hope that our new way of counting down will be a source of encouragement. The reality is, we’re still graduating, and we deserve the opportunity to still celebrate with and for one another.

Photos courtesy of Chrystal Golden. Dodgeball victory photo taken by BowTie Photos, LLC.