Had it been another year, graduation would have been the moment when Emily Orey finally saw the college campus behind her computer screen.
She would have made a special trip from Orlando to the University of Florida, filed into the school’s stadium with 10,000 fellow students and belted out Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.”
The lyrics would have been especially fitting for Orey, who at 29 is checking off her hard-won goal of attaining her bachelor's degree by 30. She’s never sung the Gainesville legend’s song at a Gator game or, for that matter, participated in any of the university's traditions.
She’s never even set foot on campus. She’d earned her degree the way many of us live now, remotely.
Graduation was supposed to be when Orey finally had a traditional college experience.
Instead, she, along with college graduates across the country, are having the most non-traditional experience imaginable. The global pandemic has made the usual rite of passage impossible. The historic situation has sent colleges scrambling to replicate commencement virtually, recording speeches and broadcasting virtual ceremonies.
For the University of Florida and Florida State University, those virtual celebrations happened this weekend. The University of South Florida is scheduled to hold a virtual commencement May 9.
Even though Orey didn't get the exact moment she’d dreamed of, no one could take away the work she’d done to get her degree.
She’d married before graduating high school, had her daughter at 19 and quickly become a military wife. Her schedule couldn’t bend to university life. She had a husband who had been deployed to Afghanistan, a child to raise and bills to pay. So she went to community college and earned her associate’s degree.
In 2017, she began the University of Florida’s online degree program, majoring in public relations and minoring in psychology. In those years, she divorced, moved cities and remarried, all while working full time and volunteering at her daughter’s school.
Her husband knew what a proud moment this was. He’d been there on the nights where she’d wanted to toss the computer across the room and give up.
He hatched a plan.
“When I heard there wasn’t going to be a graduation, I called and ordered a cake,” Greg Orey said.
On the big day, while his wife was in the bedroom, he placed blankets outside the door to create a ceremonial “orange carpet” for her to walk across.
Then he yelled, “Hey, you graduate, come out!”
Emily Orey couldn’t believe it. She didn’t get to party with thousands of other students, but there were her two favorite people in the world cheering just for her. Her daughter, now 10, handed her a bouquet.
Similar scenes played out in living rooms all over.
In St. Pete Beach, University of Florida student Caitlin Dodd’s family put Gator bandannas on the dogs and filmed her as the virtual ceremony played in the background. Dodd’s sister wore a Gator hat and created a fake diploma to give her sister when her name was called.
In Miami, Sheryl Unger made her daughter a cardboard graduation cap for the occasion. She cried as her daughter wore it while “Pomp and Circumstance” played.
Unger has cherished the past six weeks with her daughter that she wouldn’t have had without a pandemic forcing her home. But she did miss the cap and gown photo. She missed seeing the joy on the faces of other families.
Unger’s own graduation was marked by tragedy when, in the days just before it, a classmate died of a brain aneurysm during a party at her house.
“I’ve always reveled in other people’s graduations because of what happened to me,” she said. “I always say that was the night I grew up.”
But her daughter Dara’s celebration was still a celebration. Dara wasn’t letting the unusual experience ruin the party. She got creative.
On Zoom, her friends held their own ceremony, filled with inside jokes and a PowerPoint presentation on each friend. The family ate breakfast burritos, in honor of the restaurant they would have gone to had they been in Gainesville. Dara made a trip to the campus bookstore — online, of course — to buy an alumni shirt.
In the end, even though it was odd, the result remained the same: she graduated. And, as her dad pointed out to a reporter, she did so with honors.
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