All Things Considered

Class of 2024 reflects on tumultuous journey from 2020 to graduation

A graduate poses for a photo-2
Class of 2024 graduate Aaliyah Demry studied mass communications at St. Cloud State University.
Courtesy of Aaliyah Demry

“Graduation day was a little crazy, I’m not gonna lie,” St. Cloud State University graduate Aaliyah Demry said.

The entire day was jam-packed. Everything had to be perfect, given this was her first graduation experience. Like many 2024 college graduates, her high school graduation had been a non-event due to COVID-19. This time, she was determined to make it special.

“It was a maintenance day in the beginning — getting hair, nails and all of that stuff together,” she said. “But just also making sure that I could figure out a way where all of my family could attend my graduation.”

Demry leaned into the same determination it took to earn her mass communications degree in the post-pandemic, post-George Floyd era, and managed to get her entire family from her hometown of Minneapolis up to St. Cloud.

“It all turned out great,” she said. “It’s honestly something I’ve never felt before — just hearing my parents and my friends in the audience cheering me on. So amazing.”

A graduate poses for a photo-3
Class of 2024 graduate Aaliyah Demry studied mass communications at St. Cloud State University.
Courtesy of Aaliyah Demry
Class of 2024 Aaliyah Demry

Relishing in the applause and audible outbursts of family and friends while walking across the stage is a thrill for any graduate. But it felt especially sweet for this year’s college class.

Even if some of them couldn’t fully process it in the moment.

“It was very nerve-wracking, I didn’t want to fall, I didn’t want to trip,” Hayley Titel said about her one shining moment.

Titel graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in Mortuary Science. Like many in her class, her senior year at her small high school in Altoona, Wis., was rocked by COVID-19.

It made for a rough transition to college.

“I kind of knew like, ‘Oh, next year might be online,’” she said. “It was still really shocking, because, you know, you pay a lot of money to go to school. And then you start to get so lonely because all your classes are online.”

A person poses with a diploma
Class of 2024 graduate Hayley Titel earned a degree in mortuary science from the University of Minnesota in May.
Courtesy of Hayley Titel
Class of 2024: Hayley Titel

Overcoming the challenges of online learning

For some students online learning was harder than traditional classroom learning.

“I didn’t feel like I was learning anything at all,” Demry said.

Despite being a standout high school student entering college with credits through Postsecondary Enrollment Options, widely known as PSEO, virtual learning presented Demry with new challenges.

“I didn’t retain anything that I was learning,” she said. “I can definitely tell that some of the teachers were drained. They were honestly just giving me and my peers grades just so we can get over with the semester, and make sure that everybody passed during that time … it just definitely took a toll on your motivation.”

A person poses for graduation photos-3
Class of 2024 graduate Abdul-Hakeem Mustapha (second from left) earned a bachelor's degree in social work in May and will begin a master’s program focusing on clinical social work in the fall.
Courtesy of Abdul-Hakeem Mustapha
Class of 2024: Abdul-Hakeem Mustapha

Abdul-Hakeem Mustapha, another 2024 St. Cloud State University graduate, also found online learning challenging.

“You don’t have to turn your camera on,” he said. “You can just be that little black little screen for a whole semester and nothing might happen, depending on who your professor is.”

Karina Moreno is a Minnesota State University graduate with a degree in educational leadership. She moved to Minnesota from Chiapas, Mexico, at age 18 as part of her quest to build a life for herself and her daughter in America.

Juggling classes, working full-time and motherhood was a tall task. “During COVID, I had to stop from college,” she said. “It is very hard to be a mother of a small children especially [because] they do not understand why sometimes you cannot be with them,” Moreno said.

Her daughter was starting kindergarten. Like many parents, she had to change her plans to be home with her child during school hours.

Maria Williams, who earned her degree in professional communications from Metro State University, said she will remember this as a “time of just perseverance.”

“I feel like I personally just had a lot on my shoulders, and I still did it,” Williams said. “I wasn’t prepared for my main courses. I’m a hands-on learner. And so there are certain aspects of certain classes that I wouldn’t actually need to be in person for, you know, like logic, or, like media relations, stuff like that. I’m just a better learner when I’m in class, or when I actually get to speak with the professor face-to-face.”

A graduate stands with flowers
Class of 2024 graduate Maria Williams earned a degree in professional communications from Metro State University in May.
Courtesy of Maria Williams
Class of 2024: Maria Williams

Williams, who is also a non-traditional student and the first person in her family to graduate college with a four-year degree, made the decision to quit her full-time job to dedicate herself to school and to a series of internships. She says that decision led to her getting the most out of her time in college.

“I didn’t take any shortcuts, I was thorough and I was honest,” she said. “And I’m able to be confident and stand up and be like, I know exactly where I am. I know what I’m doing.”

The George Floyd factor

As much as the pandemic placed a large burden on the college experience for the class of 2024, it was not the only obstacle in their journey.

“The George Floyd stuff was a lot mentally and emotionally,” Williams said.

South Minneapolis became the epicenter of a global racial reckoning following the police murder of George Floyd. Williams, a south Minneapolis native, says that weighed on her during her studies.

“I definitely carried a lot of that,” she said. “But, I also felt a very strange amount of just peace in that space, because I felt like that was like the first time in so long where our voices were really being heard. And the fact that we even had to go to the extreme measures that we had to go to that sucks. But, it was the first time I feel like, we got to fully express ourselves in like the entirety of just how we felt and like what we’ve been carrying. And I feel like that carried over into my schoolwork. And that carried over into the student I was all the way through.”

As a student on the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus, Titel felt the impact.

“When COVID hit and then George Floyd riots started it was such a strange experience, especially being in Minneapolis. You felt at the center of it all,” Titel said. “I think it awoke, like, a passion in [me and my classmates] to really protect others in their community and to stand up for others.”

Mustapha was on the board of directors for the Council of African-American Students, a student-run organization at St. Cloud State, at the time of Floyd’s murder.

“It was a crazy time,” he said. “We all had to go home, we all kind of had to deal with it ourselves. We couldn’t really meet in a space where we could on campus, and talk about what’s happening in our backyard, literally.”

In a time where he craved the safe space he was working to create on campus, he had to go without due to summer break. Mustapha says it was a summer of internal strife during the civil unrest overwhelmed him daily at home and at his job at Home Depot.

“I’m literally stocking shelves, putting stuff away. I’m listening to the news. I’m watching the news. I’m pissed off, putting hammers back,” he said. “I’m like, ‘you know, I need to be out there, I need to go out there and express myself. I need to go out there and support, you know, the fight for this cause.’ And I wasn’t able to do that, because I was out of town. I was. I wasn’t in Minneapolis at that time.”

Conversations and connections

Moreno says she was able to have vulnerable conversations with her peers about hot-button social and political issues.

“One of my best memories that I have from college was being able to talk to my classmates and professors, and have these honest conversations about real issues regarding race, immigration, education and so many other topics,” Moreno said. “Sometimes it is hard to have a conversation, but with my classmates and in college most of us were pretty open to have those conversations and and be able to have a discussion and in bring ideas.”

A graduate stands for a photo-2
Class of 2024 graduate Karina Moreno earned a degree in Educational Leadership from Minnesota State University Mankato in May.
Courtesy of Karino Morena
Class of 2024: Karina Moreno

Mustapha, who earned a bachelor's degree in social work and will begin a master’s program focusing on clinical social work in the fall, said: “My favorite experience throughout college, would have to be the extracurricular and the community based experiences. I really enjoyed actually making a difference on campus and being there and being able to hold spaces for people like myself.”

And even though college may have started out by staring at a sea of black boxes on a computer screen for many students, Demry said the best part of college was being “able to connect with people from all over the world.”

“St. Cloud has a really big international community and going into college I had a lot of misconceptions about people from different parts of the world,” Demry said. “Being able just to hear their experience and get to know about their life before coming to America was probably one of the most coolest things. I got to share a lot of great memories by making some of their cultural meals, their hairstyle getting my hair done to people on campus that were from different countries, it was just something that I’ve never really experienced.”

Editor's note: Demry is a former intern with MPR News and Williams is currently an intern with The Current.