"Ah, but a graduate's reach should exceed their grasp, or what's a degree for?"
I find this mock-up of Robert Browning's famous line painfully accurate.
Many final year students fall hook, line, and sinker to the sales pitch that the whole world will soon be at their fingertips. We gleefully believe that after three gruelling years perfecting our craft in the lecture halls and libraries, employers are clamouring to snap us up like shoppers at the sale rack.
Covid-19 has exposed this for the lie that it is (as if rising admissions to "Hotel of Mum & Dad" had not already exposed enough).
Graduating has seldom been easy. Jobs are hard to come by and the safety of studenthood dissipates almost immediately. Imagine graduating into a world near-paralysed by a pandemic.
After a lifetime of education and tentative steps towards independence, the class of 2020 finally flew the nest. We drew our breath, spread our wings, and took the leap – only to find ourselves caught up in the same storm that is tormenting the whole world.
Nobody is flying very well at the moment. Not even the nests we just left are safe. These are truly vicious winds of change.
Not long after all this Covid business started, I wrote about what the coronavirus pandemic feels like for a theology student. I have since graduated and embarked on the adventure of interning with a local church and regional denominational association.
No graduating experience is the same, not least in these unprecedented times (has an adjective ever become so tiring so quickly?!). Nevertheless, here is how I have found graduating into a Covid-world, framed by the five questions that I have asked myself the most:
1. Who is the real person behind the jumpy and pixelated webcam feed?
Humans are inherently social beings.
God made us in His image and that image is relational. God bestows upon us the dignity of being persons – and this personhood is fully formed only through interpersonal interaction.
Making personal connections in our current covid-era, however, is difficult. Meaningful new relationships are hard to come by when the most intimate knowledge we may have of someone is their email signature (as lovely as some of these email signatures are).
Today's technology is remarkable, but we can surely agree that even the most high-definition of video-calling services simply cannot compete with real-life personal encounters.
2. Is that what my voice really sounds like?
Frequent alternatives to this question are: "does my hair always look like that?!", "why didn't I get better wifi?!", and "oh no... have I been on mute for all this time?!"
Whether it has been catching up with friends, pretending to pay attention to work meetings, or worshipping with our church community, I don't think I have ever spent so much time in front of a screen.
I certainly didn't expect to graduate only to continue to be able to work in my pyjamas from my computer for 50% of the time (I thought that was a privilege afforded only to students).
We are embodied beings and cannot exist completely except in-person. Yet perhaps for now it is necessary to adapt to life online – and maybe even try to enjoy it!
3. Will we be allowed to do that?
I don't know if I was the "spontaneous type" before coronavirus. I know for sure that I am not now.
Decisions that used to be easy – where to go for dinner, whether to visit grandparents, how many people to invite to an event – all now require military-level planning.
I have made countless plans that were surely, unassailably Covid-proof, which have then changed dramatically or fallen through thanks to the ever-evolving, ever-destructive hand of Covid. I know that I am not alone in this.
This is frustrating, but it is a fact of life. There is little else to do but to think sensibly, plan safely, and enjoy the life God gives us each day.
4. Has that always been there?
Until coronavirus ground the world to a halt, I had never quite convinced myself that I had enough time to take walks.
Little did I know how much I was missing out on... the world is beautiful!
Of course, I shouldn't be surprised: God created earth and thought it pretty "good". I suppose I just never took the time to appreciate how good it really is until now.
I have also been surprised by how much of my local community I have missed by simply not paying attention to it.
With lockdowns slowing me down and "fresh-air breaks" getting me out the flat, I have been free to wander the nearby streets. Through this freedom, I have slowly feasted on the beauty of my local area and have gradually grown in my understanding of the community.
I might be missing the people side of things, but by pounding the streets I feel like I now know my locality better than ever.
5. Why did nobody teach us this?
What a ridiculous question, right? Nobody could have known to teach their students how to survive in a Covid world.
Even books with titles like "things they never taught me at Bible college" are lacking in tips for navigating life in a pandemic.
I don't ask this question because I genuinely grudge our lecturers for not preparing us for a Covid world. How could anyone have done that?
I ask it, tongue-in-cheek, as a cathartic expression of my profound confusion at the current state of play and my own irritating inability to be able to do anything about it.
I ask because I have very little idea what I am doing. Not many of us do. But asking this question makes me feel a little less alone in the struggle.
That is the joy and challenge of graduating into a Covid world.