The Advising Dean: Resilience, optimism & the Class of 2020
The Advising Dean

The Advising Dean: Resilience, optimism & the Class of 2020

I was surprised to see Yessi Villasenor working at her family’s restaurant when I stopped by Villa Corona for takeout dinners last week. Yessi is a graduating senior at California College of Arts who worked long and hard on a final senior project only to have things fall apart when her last weeks of classes were cancelled.

Across America, high school and college students’ lives have been upended by the COVID-19 coronavirus. For them, there are no capstone presentations or last theatrical productions, no final games with teammates; no class photos, senior proms, or valedictory speeches; no last goodbyes, hugs, and tears shared with classmates and teachers.

As UCLA senior Angie Forberger tweets, “I never thought that this is how my four years would end. Absolutely devastating.”

Especially sad are the many high school and college students who won’t have the opportunity to walk across the stage as the first in their families to receive a diploma or degree. Zoom graduation ceremonies and drive-by parades are no substitute for the sounds of cheering family, teachers, and blaring air horns.

Commencement day is not only a celebration of students’ accomplishments; it’s also a celebration of the support, sacrifices and love of family and others who traveled with them on their journeys.

However, as graduating senior Michael Jeramaz thoughtfully observes in his May 14 letter to The Star, “Thousands have died while millions have lost their jobs, and we are fortunate enough to only have gatherings and experiences taken from us.”

Every older generation thinks they had it harder than the ones that come after them; however, students in the Class of 2020 arguably have had their share of childhood traumas — from experiencing and rebounding from the terror of 9/11, surviving the menace and anxieties of school shootings, and sharing with their families the hardships of a historic recession.

Some graduates escaped the violence and hopelessness of their native countries and were brought to the U.S. as children to pursue the possibilities for a better life, only to confront the stress of possible deportation to countries they’ve never known.

As someone who has attended countless graduations and reunions, I realize that we don’t leave high school and college behind; we take those experiences with us for the rest of our lives: the life lessons learned, the good friends made, and, hopefully, future opportunities to thank teachers, counselors, coaches, and others who made a difference for us.

The uncertainty of the future concerns Yessi, but she remains optimistic about the future. Having come this far, I have no doubts but that she and the Class of 2020 will survive and thrive beyond the sting of a pandemic that continues to disrupt their lives and those of their families, communities, the nation, and the world.

As graduates continue to deal with the disappointments of the spring, the entering college Class of 2020 faces a new normal. As Chris Quintana observes in a May 1 USA Today column, “First coronavirus canceled spring break. Then it was graduation day. College Decision Day may be next,” as families confront economic uncertainty and stunning job losses.

California State University Chancellor Timothy White is hoping for the best and preparing for the worst by offering online classes almost exclusively for 2020-2021. However, if there is no vaccine and COVID-19 re-emerges during the winter flu season as most health experts forecast, other colleges that reopened will likely face the prospect of returning to online classes.

Assumption College Professor James Lang predicts online instruction, “Will not satisfy students who made a deliberate decision to attend a physical campus.” It’s reasonable to ask whether students and parents will pay (or borrow) tens of thousands of dollars for online classes at a private college that are available for far less at community colleges.

While taking online classes may sound easier, the reality is they can be more challenging because they require self-discipline, time management, and other skills. Students can assess their readiness for online classes using the CSU Stanislaus ( or Penn State assessment

One national survey finds 20% of students saying they will change their plans if colleges only provide online instruction. For example, several Calistoga High School Soroptimist Scholarship awardees express disappointment at the possibility of not being able to move from their small town community into the larger world of a university campus.

This pandemic has deprived graduates of traditional experiences; nonetheless, future reunions will find them sharing goals and dreams achieved by their remarkable Class of 2020.

Editor’s Note: Because of the health implications of the COVID-19 virus, this article is being made available free to all online readers. If you’d like to join us in supporting the mission of local journalism, please visit

Tom Brown is a St. Helena resident who served as a dean at Saint Mary’s College of California for 27 years. He currently is a consultant and speaker at colleges and universities that are seeking to keep more of the students they enroll. Send comments, questions or suggestions for future columns to:

Concerned about COVID-19?

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

You may not remember the polio virus that swept across America, but it closed schools and provide a challenge to teachers, who used a new technology, radio, to teach their students. Even though the COVID-19 is a different virus, many of the issues are the same.

Tom Brown is a St. Helena resident, who served as a dean at Saint Mary's College of California for 27 years. He says this holiday season provides an excellent occasion to express gratitude to all those educators, including family members, who help make our dreams real.

I majored in social work at Pacific Union College because I wanted to help enable others who are more compromised than myself.

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


News Alerts

Breaking News