By M. Luke Davis, Furia Rubel Communications Intern
The final moments of college seniors’ last semester abruptly ended as the COVID-19 pandemic slowly wreaked havoc in the U.S. At a university in North Carolina, senior college students had just completed midterm exams. A week’s worth of belongings was hastily crammed into backpacks and carry-ons before heading home or to a spring break hot spot. An incredible, last half of their senior semester of college would await them when they returned to campus.
But there would still be time left to do all the things you wished you’d done before. One last hoorah! It would be now or never. No regrets. Two and a half months to live it up and love every minute left before graduation.
Hang with those friends you were too busy for before, like having a drink on a Tuesday night at the local bar just for the heck of it, ten more weekends of on-campus activities, the senior ball, senior week, formals, baccalaureate and commencement. It was going to be so great. Plenty of time left to still bond, embrace, cry, and laugh. The culmination of four years.
Then came the shocking news that hit the seniors like a thunderbolt – they wouldn’t be returning to campus. Get your belongings later. Colleges nationwide were making the difficult decision to close campuses to students and have them finish the semester remotely, online.
Seniors couldn’t believe it. There was really no forewarning. It’s done. It’s over. No more get togethers. No more campus parties. No more pictures for Instagram. No more roommates.
People say that college is supposed to be some of the best years of your life, but seniors far and wide had one of their most memorable chapters suddenly cut short. Lost forever. Their senior years came to a screeching halt.
There wouldn’t be any proper goodbyes. There wouldn’t be last moments to cherish with the friends who’d been together for the past four years. There wouldn’t be one last ride.
Meanwhile, high school seniors across the country are facing the same situation. Schools closed indefinitely and classes went online. No senior year spring sports. No prom? Graduation commencement? This is like no other time in history, but especially for both high school and college seniors, who were too young to even remember 9/11.
To many, the feeling of loss – loss of their last semester, loss of time with friends, loss of memorable senior events – is much like a death in the family. So, it makes sense that Generation Z high school and college seniors feel cheated.
There are events in life that can leave an indelible mark. Still, for Gen Zs, none have been quite like the COVID-19 pandemic. Even after 9/11, life went on as usual in most parts of the country – no social distancing, no stay-at-home orders, and no self-quarantines.
Understandably, it can be difficult for older generations to empathize with Gen Zs, when some have been portrayed by the media as not taking the COVID-19 crisis seriously. We’ve all seen the videos of spring breakers living it up on the sunny beaches of Florida or other spring break destinations.
Many students knew about the coronavirus outbreak, but they decided not to heed warnings from the CDC, government and the media, albeit no one had any idea it would get so bad so quickly. And in fairness, Florida only recently shut its beaches and issued stay-at-home orders. However, as college students carried on with their normal lives in early March, it made the “Me Generation” appear to be inconsiderate, and they were blamed for not doing their part to contain the spread and for putting people at higher risk of contracting it.
On March 20, 2020, in addressing Gen Zs, Dr. Bruce Aylward, senior adviser to the World Health Organization’s Director-General, told TIME, “This is one of the most serious diseases you will face in your lifetime, and recognize that and respect it.”
In the last week of March, 163 out of 342 cases in Philadelphia were attributable to individuals between the ages of 20-39 alone, according to research from the Department of Public Health. In addition, 40% of patients who have been hospitalized are between the ages of 20 to 54, according to the CDC. Despite this, some Gen Z’ers ignored appeals for social distancing and still went on spring break. Some still partied to celebrate St. Patty’s Day. However, at the same time, many other’s were taking to social media to request that we #StayTheFHome.
Although Gen Z’ers may appear naïve toward the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, it’s important to understand that they will also be one of the generations who are most affected by it. In fact, they’re dealing with it in their own way, just as much as the rest of us. There is more psychological reasoning behind why they might react in a way that is considered nonchalant.
“Every generation will react differently [to COVID-19] based on the experiences that generation has had,” Paul Gionfriddo, president and CEO of the nonprofit Mental Health America said to CNBC Make It.
Gionfriddo explains that younger people stare down problems as a coping or survival mechanism. This explains why younger adults continued to go out, despite warnings to stay indoors. On top of this, Gen Z adults are more likely than any other generation to report poor mental health according to a 2018 survey from the American Psychological Association. “When you tack on something like [COVID-19], you’re basically not going to see as dramatic a change in their outlook, because the generation is already so stressed,” Gionfriddo says.
Megan Gerhardt, a professor at Miami University who studies differences between generations, points out that the age group of Gen Z is a time when you’re likely only thinking about yourself. “There’s an individualistic priority that goes on for all of us during that period,” says Gerhardt. “You’re not accustomed to thinking about how you are a great part of a larger whole.” As a result, a lot of college students held the mentality that they already spent a large amount of money on plane tickets to the beach. Many seniors, especially, have expressed how it’s the last opportunity they had to go on spring break with college buddies. That attitude combined with early reports that COVID-19 wouldn’t affect young, healthy individuals, led them to ignore caution from the CDC and news.
Not to mention, those in Generation Z value face-to-face communication, which makes it even harder to social distance themselves. Young people pay attention when they hear something from their peers. A lot of Gen Zs are posting news with headlines like “why you shouldn’t be concerned about COVID-19,” and seeing people who’ve recovered say that their COVID-19 symptoms weren’t a big deal, reinforces this belief. This has had a large sway on young people, as they all reshare these stories to their own friends and followers.
One recent MBA graduate revealed that he had just landed a job after several interviews, but due to COVID-19, it’s postponed indefinitely. His life is in limbo; other companies aren’t interviewing to hire recent grads. Brian, a college senior, expressed frustration and sadness that he had already attended his last fraternity party, and he didn’t even know it. He said he had a lot of regrets that he had spent so much time trying to get good grades at the expense of more time with the guys, and he won’t get that time back. Another, named Emily, cried about not having the chance to attend one last formal or say goodbye to her sisters. One student said, “Never turn down anything, not a night out with your friends, a chance to spend time with family, even if you think it might be boring or you don’t think you have the time.”
Although this may be a depressing, devastating time for the whole world, for many seniors there are still some positives to glean. Use this moment to connect and cherish family and loved ones. While we are social distancing and staying at home, seize opportunities for quality time with loved ones. Embrace the time to reach out to others via social media.
And be patient with Gen Zs, especially seniors. Unlike other generations, they haven’t had to deal with a recession, and most were far too young to have been severely impacted by 9/11. Fortunately, unlike generations before, Gen Zs do have social media. And social media has been a positive force to unite and help them cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Besides feeling the loss of their last semester, seniors are scared about what the future and economy might hold. Many are not only worried about those they know who are at risk, but whether they’ll be able to secure a job or internship in this time of uncertainty. If you know a graduating senior, you can help them by expressing empathy, being supportive of them, and reassuring them that everything will be okay.
For more coronavirus resources, please visit our Coronavirus (COVID-19) Crisis & PR Resource Center.