Class of 2021: 8 students share their hopes and fears as they prepare to graduate during a pandemic

·7 min read
CBC News spoke with students from the class of 2021 on what it has meant to them to be graduating this year. Clockwise from the top left: Shelley Wiart, Raed Baker, Cindy Njoki Kamau, Kelia Chien, Elizabeth Taylor, Shivangi Patel, Justyce Bieuz and Brayden Harsent.  (Submitted - image credit)
CBC News spoke with students from the class of 2021 on what it has meant to them to be graduating this year. Clockwise from the top left: Shelley Wiart, Raed Baker, Cindy Njoki Kamau, Kelia Chien, Elizabeth Taylor, Shivangi Patel, Justyce Bieuz and Brayden Harsent. (Submitted - image credit)

For a second year in a row, many graduates across Canada are seeing cancelled proms, end-of-year class trips and long-awaited graduation ceremonies.

No, the road to getting a degree in a pandemic hasn't been perfect. But still, the future looks bright for the class of 2021.

CBC News spoke to eight secondary and post-secondary students graduating this year about the experience of adjusting their finances, finding jobs and — like those the year before them — missing the chance to walk across a stage.

Justyce Bieuz, North Bay, Ont.

Bieuz plans on studying acting at Humber College after graduating from high school this year.
Bieuz plans on studying acting at Humber College after graduating from high school this year. (Justyce Bieuz)

Justyce Bieuz, a Grade 12 student at Chippewa Secondary School in North Bay, Ont., said he's made his peace with the fact he won't get to walk across a stage this year.

"Not only have my parents see me, but also have all those friends and teachers I grew up with and stuck by my side," he said.

Bieuz plans to go to Humber College in Toronto next fall, but is unsure if his classes will be virtual or in-person.

"[If] I quit my job to come down there [and] I can't get a job down there, I'm in a predicament," he said

WATCH | Justyce Bieuz on how social media has kept him motivated:

Shivangi Patel, Montreal

Patel says having her grad pictures taken felt more like a celebration than the virtual iron ring ceremony she had after completing her program.
Patel says having her grad pictures taken felt more like a celebration than the virtual iron ring ceremony she had after completing her program.(Shivangi Patel)

Shivangi Patel, an engineering major at Montreal's Concordia University said her priority after graduation is to search for a job in her field. Meanwhile, she has been finding other ways to stay productive.

"This year I decided to restart my baking business because COVID doesn't seem to be going away," she said.

"I'm [enjoying] my business but I do want to work as an engineer. I'm also enrolled in interior design now, so I'm going to be doing that."

WATCH | Student from class of 2021 talks about her iron ring ceremony:

Kelia Chien, Vancouver

Chien says cutting down on her commute time gave her lots of opportunities to develop her digital presence in order to create online communities and connections .
Chien says cutting down on her commute time gave her lots of opportunities to develop her digital presence in order to create online communities and connections .(Kelia Chien)

Kelia Chien is a media studies graduate from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Last year was tough for her, and graduating online feels surreal, she said.

"It was definitely less engaging than the typical. I have ADHD [Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder], so I lost a lot of motivation and also got 'senioritis,'" she said referring to a light-hearted term for the lack of motivation graduating students sometimes feel as they get close to the end of the school year. "In the last stretch, I felt like I was on the last limb walking."

She said she spent most of the year typing and looking at screens.

"You don't really have a sense or a pace of what you're achieving," Chien said. "It's not like you're going to school or seeing your professors."

WATCH | Chien on how the pandemic pushed her to develop a digital presence:

Brayden Harsent, Kelowna, B.C.

Harsent says he plans on spending more time after school developing his fashion upcycling brand MoonRoom.
Harsent says he plans on spending more time after school developing his fashion upcycling brand MoonRoom. (Brayden Harsent)

For Grade 12 student Brayden Harsent at Rutland Senior Secondary School in Kelowna, B.C., the end of high school will mark the beginning of his entrepreneurial fashion pursuits.

"I kind of have to give credit to [COVID-19] for giving me the opportunity and chance to start my own business," he said.

"When I graduate the world is going to open up to me. It's going to give me so much more time to focus on myself and my business and my brand.

"I think it's just going to be really fun to see the opportunities that will come."

WATCH | Harsent on how the pandemic has helped him plan for his future:

Cindy Njoki Kamau, Toronto

Kamau is a graduate from the University of Toronto who spent the last year leading the UofT Black Students Association.
Kamau is a graduate from the University of Toronto who spent the last year leading the UofT Black Students Association. (Cindy Njoki Kamau)

Cindy Njoki Kamau is a fourth-year political science specialist majoring in African studies graduating from the University of Toronto. She said graduating this year means she'll not only miss out on walking across a stage, but on the opportunity to have her family from Kenya here to celebrate with her.

"I think me getting this degree was also not just for me, but also for her to a certain extent," she said of her mother.

The class of 2021 is another milestone for Kamau — she is the first person on her mother's side to go to university.

"For me, it was creating a pathway for my family... [showing] the women in my family that if I could do this, you can do this, too," she said.

WATCH | Student from the class of 2021 talks about life after graduation:

Shelley Wiart, Lloydminster, Alta.

Wiart credits her grandmother as an important role model in her decision to pursue her undergraduate degree at a mature age.
Wiart credits her grandmother as an important role model in her decision to pursue her undergraduate degree at a mature age.(Shelley Wiart)

Shelley Wiart is a mature Métis student with three daughters, living in a rural community in Alberta and is graduating from Athabasca University with a degree major in sociology and a minor in gender studies.

She plans to go to law school to continue her work advocating for Indigenous communities.

"Becoming a lawyer to me means that I have the tools in place in order to change legislation so that Indigenous communities are protected, that their data is protected, that their knowledge is protected, that they have a way to advocate for themselves, and that there's a nation to nation relationship."

Wiart said that she didn't see motherhood as something that stood in the way of pursuing higher education.

"I think that it's really important that they see how hard I work and that I'm achieving my goals and dreams," she said.

"They saw how hard I was working, and they gave me a graduation card two weeks ago."

WATCH | Wiart on continuing post-secondary education as a mature student:

Raed Baker, Brampton, Ont.

Baker says he has maintained his optimism during university by creating new clubs that allowed him to foster connection outside the class environment.
Baker says he has maintained his optimism during university by creating new clubs that allowed him to foster connection outside the class environment. (Raed Baker)

Raed Baker is graduating with an honours degree in human resource management at York University in Toronto. His parents covered part of his financial costs and the rest he paid for it using loans from the Ontario Students Assistance Program (OSAP).

His focus is getting out of debt.

"It's been quite difficult, especially hearing some people's stories of how they graduated last year with an HR degree and still cannot find a job that's within the actual field that we studied for," he said.

"It's definitely something that's scary and raises a lot of questions, but I'm still hopeful for finding a good job and within my field."

Elizabeth Taylor, Halifax

Taylor spent her last year leading the Dalhousie Black Law Students Association and says her time at Dalhousie has informed her dedication to community building.
Taylor spent her last year leading the Dalhousie Black Law Students Association and says her time at Dalhousie has informed her dedication to community building.(Elizabeth Taylor)

Elizabeth Taylor is graduating from Dalhousie University's Schulich School of Law in Halifax, and said her virtual learning experience allowed her to be more involved in extracurricular activities.

"If you're at home, you can just jump onto a Zoom call... I was able to be more engaged in different societies than I previously was able to be."

Taylor added that as the president of the Dalhousie Black Law Students Association during the pandemic, she focused her attention on the mental well-being of her members.

"I wanted to make sure I prioritized mental health and wellness and community," she said. "We did a lot of small dinners and a fundraiser where we were able to donate to the East Preston daycare centre."

WATCH | Taylor talks about missing her family: