BLACKSBURG — Courtney Martin has been stuck at her parents’ house for a year.
She graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in hospitality and tourism management. Of course she never could have imagined that a pandemic would sweep across the country and blow up the leisure and hospitality industry that relies on group social environments and in-person interaction.
Before she was set to graduate last year, she had a job lined up with a hotel company, but the company had to halt any job offers after states began adopting social distancing measures. So she returned home to Roanoke and worked in a restaurant in Salem until the economy started to improve. She tried to remain patient and optimistic. Her mother was sympathetic of her daughter’s circumstances.
“It wasn’t the end of the world,” Jackie Martin said.
One year later, the job market is starting to look up for Courtney Martin. She’ll move to Savannah, Georgia, in July to work for a hotel company, and she’ll be able to put her degree to work.
“I’m excited to use my degree,” she said. “It all worked out.”
Martin joined her peers at Lane Stadium on Wednesday to attend an in-person graduation ceremony that they didn’t get to have last year. Since graduating a year ago, the pandemic has thrust them into different situations. Some were fortunate enough to find employment right out of college. Others struggled with employment, leaving them in limbo with the uncertainty of how long the pandemic would last and whether they’d get to work in their desired field of work. And some college graduates decided to stay in school and continue on to graduate school to avoid joining the worst job market in decades.
When the pandemic reached the United States, Sarah Carey decided to quickly alter her plan to graduate and instead went to graduate school. She stayed at Virginia Tech, and is studying geography.
“I figured I might as well stay,” she said.
Carey said some days she wonders if it was the right choice. She said she’s spent the year in online classes.
“We’re hoping to have normalcy next year,” she said.
About 5,500 students graduated from Virginia Tech in 2020, but only about 350 showed up for the event at Lane Stadium. Some graduates said their friends told them that they were so uncertain about the supply of gasoline brought on by a pipeline outage and panic buying that they didn’t want to risk a trip to Blacksburg and not be able to return home. That’s the Class of 2020 for you — there had to be an unexpected challenge thrown into the second attempt to graduate.
The ceremony didn’t have the same pomp and circumstance of a traditional graduation. Hundreds of chairs were spaced out on the field, and family members stood in the stands to cheer as those below wearing black gowns and caps and face masks had their names called and walked across the stage.
Virginia Tech is holding more than a dozen in-person graduation ceremonies throughout the week for the 5,500 students in the Class of 2021. It’ll have a virtual commencement for the graduates on Friday, when degrees will be conferred.
“I know you, your classmates and families have been through a lot,” Virginia Tech President Tim Sands told the crowd. “Your senior year was interrupted by the pandemic in life both on and off campus, and it was not what any of us expected. But the Class of 2020 took on the challenge and supported each other and made a commitment to keep our community safe. We couldn’t be prouder of you and your accomplishments.”
Chris Batto was fortunate enough to secure a job before the pandemic became serious. He attended a job fair in the spring of last year and got a position with the Navy designing ships.
“It was a good job out of undergrad,” said Batto, who now lives in the Washington, D.C, metro area.
Kourtney Baumfalk is graduating twice this week. She’s marking the celebratory closure at Virginia Tech, and then on Saturday she’s graduating from Liberty University, where she completed a yearlong graduate program in industrial psychology. She knew while she was at Virginia Tech that she was going to continue her education, regardless of the pandemic.
“Even when I first started my graduate degree, COVID was new, and you couldn’t get a job, and I was uncertain about the job market and what it would be like when I got done in a year,” said Baumfaulk, who has a job in sales. She’ll soon leave Lynchburg for Richmond.
Graduates felt like the country was at a turning point with the pandemic, and they said the in-person graduation was a sign of that. After being apart for a year, friends hugged one another.
“We didn’t get a graduation last year, and now we do,” said Sarah Morgan, who graduated last year and is now in graduate school at Virginia Tech. “I feels like things are going to get better.”