Coronavirus: UAE students braced for muted graduation celebrations during virtual ceremonies

University graduates admit it is a bittersweet moment as they cannot celebrate with friends and family as planned

ABU DHABI , UNITED ARAB EMIRATES , May 19 – 2020 :- Khalid Abdelkareem student of University of Bath, UK at his home in Abu Dhabi. His graduation ceremony delayed by a year due to pandemic. He is doing Electrical and Electronics Engineering. (Pawan Singh / The National) For News/Online. Story by Kelly
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On Wednesday, Hafsa Ahmed will take a short walk around her near-deserted university campus before heading back to her room to graduate online, alone.

The 22-year-old Pakistani student is one of hundreds in the UAE who will be graduating virtually this year due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Ms Ahmed said Wednesday will mark a “bittersweet ending” to her four year journey at New York University Abu Dhabi.

"It is slowly sinking in that we are graduating online," she told The National.

“Over the past couple of weeks it has been a step by step realisation that it is happening this way, so I’ve gotten used to the idea, I can't change it.

“This whole process has been hard. We are taught to look at the silver linings but it’s tough when a farewell like this has come so suddenly.

“I’ve had friends in the UAE take repatriation flights to their home countries without the chance to say goodbye.

“A graduation ceremony is a type of closure for students, it’s hard to get that in these current times, but I’m grateful for the effort that has been made by our university.”

Studying a Bachelor of Arts in Social Research and Public Policy, Ms Ahmed submitted her final thesis and project earlier this month.

Hafsa Ahmed, a student at New York University Abu Dhabi, will take part in her virtual graduation on Wednesday. Courtesy: Hafsa Ahmed

The occasion marked the end of an era for the senior and brought a close to a “memorable, fantastic and emotional” university experience.

On Wednesday afternoon, she will join hundreds of classmates and login to NYU Abu Dhabi’s virtual commencement ceremony to celebrate the Class of 2020.

The event will include a video tribute to the graduating class, an individual degree conferment where students' names will be called out, as well as speeches from NYU president Andy Hamilton, vice chancellor Mariët Westermann and two time Pulitzer Prize winner, David Levering Lewis.

“I am looking forward to it but it will be very different to what we all planned,” said Ms Ahmed.

“We were sent a little goodie bag that contained our graduation caps and gowns, an alumni pin and a congratulatory card from the leadership.

“We were also given a booking slot so we could go and have our graduation picture taken.

“My parents were meant to fly in from Pakistan a week before the ceremony so I could introduce them to my friends and professors, so it’s sad to be losing out on that.

“It wears down on you, I can’t help but be nostalgic about what could have been.”

Ms Ahmed said she will be having a muted and “socially distanced celebration” with some of her peers at her campus accommodation in Abu Dhabi.

For 22-year-old Khalid Abdelkareem, his ceremony has been cancelled all together.

Studying at the University of Bath in the UK, he travelled back to his family in the UAE on March 12 as global lockdown measures began to tighten.

“I was expecting to come back in mid-April but as we saw things getting worse, I brought my flight forward,” he said.

“I left my student halls very suddenly and didn’t even get to say goodbye to a lot of my friends.

“After four years of study and living together, it was a split decision that I had no control over.

“Our graduation ceremony has been cancelled and so has our end of year ball, which is something I’ve been looking forward to since starting university.”

ABU DHABI , UNITED ARAB EMIRATES , May 19 – 2020 :- Khalid Abdelkareem student of University of Bath, UK at his home in Abu Dhabi. His graduation ceremony delayed by a year due to pandemic. He is doing Electrical and Electronics Engineering. (Pawan Singh / The National) For News/Online. Story by Kelly

The electrical and electronic engineering student said he and classmates were given the option to attend a later, joint graduation, but he declined.

“The university asked us if we wanted to be invited to another graduation event either in November or in June 2021, but a lot of us declined,” he said.

“Very few of us can travel back to the university because most of us will be in full-time employment.

"It’s especially difficult for overseas students like me. I have a job placement in the UAE that I’ll be starting in the summer, I can’t then take time out to travel to the UK for the sake of an hours-long ceremony.

“Plus, that feeling of being a fresh graduate would have been gone by then. It’s really sad but I just have to get on with it now.”

Throughout the world, the class of 2020 has had to push forward with a non-traditional graduation experience amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

While practicing social distancing, university communities have come up with creative ways to celebrate their commencement virtually.

At the Business Breakthrough University in Tokyo, Japan, mobile robots were used to host a unique graduation ceremony for students on March 28.

The robots had tablets attached to them where each student was in “virtual attendance” via a Zoom call.

At.4.30pm on Wednesday, Katarina Holtzapple, a senior at NYU Abu Dhabi, said she will be watching her graduation take place on her laptop from the comfort of her dorm room.

“I have family in the US and Croatia so I am co-ordinating getting everyone together on a video call to watch the ceremony with me, there will be about 15 or 20 of us,” the 22-year-old said.

“My immediate family should have been with me in person but that just couldn’t happen because of the pandemic.

Katarina Holtzapple will have family from the United States and Croatia watching her online graduation ceremony. Courtesy: Katrina Holtzapple

“When I realised I couldn’t fly back home to the US to do the virtual graduation with my family around me, that was tough.

“It’s very different to how I planned my graduation but the reality has settled in now.”

The fourth year student, studying film and social research and public policy, said she will be in her dorm with her three roommates on the day, but will leave the full celebrations until next month.

“I fly home on Wednesday so we’ll be having a belated get together with my family because my cousin in the US is graduating too.”