Cover Farah Jabir, Jayme Teoh and Alyssa Johaan

Tatler speaks to three young women about what it was like not being able to have in-person graduations

The advent of yet another virtual graduation season this year has been bittersweet. It at once marks the strength and resilience of students in pursuing higher education during a pandemic and the sadness that their university experience has been unconventional, to say the least.

Throwback: Class of 2020 Graduates Share Their Hopes And Dreams For The Future

Alyssa Johaan

At the start of the pandemic, 24-year-old Alyssa Johaan was a student in London pursuing her Master's degree in strategic marketing at Imperial College Business School. During her Easter break in March, she had planned a short trip home but little did she know, she would be completing the remainder of her course in Malaysia. 

"Everything happened quite abruptly," she says. Her plans of starting a six-week internship at one of the biggest online luxury fashion retailers as part of her course was dashed.

She immediately got to work on her dissertation project as well as her remaining academic commitments. "It was a struggle arranging the discussions to complete our group assignments," shares Alyssa. She and her coursemates, who lived all around the world, were faced with the logistical nightmare of coordinating time zones across different continents. 

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Above Alyssa Johaan

In May, Alyssa attended her virtual graduation with her family. "I put on a sweater and trousers to mark the occasion that evening but everyone else was in the pyjamas," she reveals. "My dad was sweet enough to put up the livestream on our TV for when my name was called out." 

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After all that has happened in the last year and a half, it's important to appreciate the little things.
Alyssa Johaan

She compared the experience to the in-person festivities when she completed her undergraduate degree. "It was definitely different but I wouldn't say that this graduation was any less special," she says. 

"I got to share the event with my friends who I didn't get the chance to say a proper goodbye to. It was nice to have everyone together and chatting during the online ceremony after so many months apart."

In that spirit of gratitude and optimism, she concludes that all that transpired was really a blessing in disguise. Despite the lost opportunity of gaining work experience abroad, Alyssa was able to begin building her career and found her passion collaborating with local brands to establish their digital and social media presence, which she continues to do today. In her personal life, her prolonged stay in Malaysia created the perfect circumstances for her boyfriend of eight years to propose!

Farah Jabir

NYU Tisch School of the Arts graduate Farah Jabir remembers the "mass exodus" of New York City when the pandemic hit last year. The aspiring filmmaker was one of the few international students who stayed in the city as her classes were moved online. 

"It was a devastating time for all of us," she says, recalling the moment she received the news that her entire cohort would not be able to produce their thesis films, what was supposed to be the culmination of their four years at the college and the highlight of their academic career. Instead, she submitted a director's workbook as her final year project and went on to graduate virtually that summer.

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Above Farah Jabir

"It was kind of weird," she laughs, referring to her online graduation. Before the pandemic, an all-university graduation ceremony would have taken place at the iconic Yankee stadium, with highly-anticipated speeches from illustrious alumni.

And while the line-up of speakers—including Alec Baldwin, Elizabeth Olsen and Deborah Messing—at NYU's first-ever virtual graduation was equally impressive, one of Farah's most vivid memories of the commencement ceremony was that Robert De Niro decided to remove his shoes during his address.

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She also attended a more intimate virtual graduation organised for her filmmaking course by Tisch School of Arts. "It was at 3am in Malaysia, so I didn't expect my parents to attend," she says. "But my girlfriends in London and KL stayed up! They all got onto the official Zoom chat for the event and were sending messages to cheer me on when my name appeared on the screen." 

Farah looks back on the entire experience in good humour: "I get to tell my kids one day that I graduated as class of 2020."  

And she remains undefeated. Farah is currently shooting her thesis film independently. Kokomo, a coming-of-age family drama about 15-year-old Vic Ramirez who witnesses her father's infidelity, will be her directorial debut. 

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Jayme Teoh

Another NYU alumnus, Jayme Teoh virtually graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor's degree in politics and history from the comfort of her living room last year.

"The university tried their best under the circumstances," she says. "I received a congratulatory package in the mail, with my cap and tassel. There was a pack of confetti in NYU colours and a personalised pamphlets of all the online events they were holding during grad week." 

That said, Teoh admits that she has some trouble recalling details of the virtual ceremony. "On the day itself, my dad bought a bottle of champagne and flowers. I didn't have a proper robe, so I found something that resembled one from my mother's closet and we had a family photoshoot. Then, we stayed up late to watch my name get called out during the online ceremony."

The outbreak of the pandemic had brought Teoh's post-graduate plans to a standstill. 

"I wanted to travel after graduation before heading to Beijing—and later, London—to pursue a Master's degree in international affairs," she says. Instead, Teoh decided to defer her entry to Peking University for the fall of 2021. 

Meantime, she has been keeping herself busy, recently concluding a four-month archival research project on the history of student activism in Malaysia for Imagined Malaysia. "I'm currently helping out the team at Move for Hope to raise funds to deliver food packages for refugee children and their families," she says. "It's been nice being at home and spending time with my family. I've actually started a small business called The Scrunch Bar, selling scrunchies with my sister and we plan on donating some of the profits to charity." 

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Reflecting on her unplanned gap year, she expresses that there is some residual sadness on how everything panned out. On her virtual graduation, she shares: "I sometimes still feel like I missed out on something big".

However, as the world continues to open up, there is still hope that universities will invite the countless graduates around the world who share the same sentiments to attend rescheduled, in-person graduation ceremonies to mark this remarkable milestone in their lives.