Despite COVID-19, my new graduate emerged from college as a champion


The path to my younger daughter Alana’s college graduation started 21 years ago, when she was adopted in China two days before her first birthday, and ended in an unusual 21-minute ceremony on a Monday morning in May at Johnson & Wales University, when she received a Bachelor of Science degree in culinary nutrition.

The shortened nature of the ceremony for her and other senior athletes was necessitated by their teams’ success and the schedule for championship games in their conference, the Great Northeast Athletic Conference (GNAC).  The college competes in lacrosse, my daughter’s sport, as well as baseball and softball.

As a result of the scheduling conflict, the teams’ seniors were told that if they advanced to the title games, they would be graduating two days later than their classmates, at a small ceremony instead of the 2½-hour undergraduate commencement held May 6 at the Amica Mutual Pavilion, or AMP, in downtown Providence.

That outcome was just one more twist, albeit a pleasant one, in a college career that was overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic, which upended the final semester of my daughter’s freshman year and continued to affect her during her sophomore and junior years.

The Class of 2023 had just returned from spring break, on March 12, 2020, when they were told to move out of their dorms and return home. Fortunately for Alana, that just meant traveling several miles up I-95 to her home in North Attleboro, but for many other students it meant scrambling to find transportation to destinations across the country, or even to other countries.

As the COVID-19 emergency morphed from what initially had been called a two-week shutdown into a prolonged lockdown with a litany of confusing, and often contradictory, government-imposed restrictions, their college life stopped. There were no sports, in-person activities,  classes or socializing – pretty much everything that college life was known for before COVID-19 turned schools into lonely, depressing places.

Although my daughter was able to take some of her courses online, her lab was delayed until July and August, with an accelerated schedule. That meant masking up and going to campus five days a week so the lab could be completed before her sophomore year began.

When the students returned to school, on a hybrid schedule, in September 2020, they were subjected to spot COVID-19 tests for months, and faced curbs on their movement until the spring of 2021, when, with the advent of vaccinations, college life slowly began returning to normal.

But make no mistake: The pandemic cut deeply into all aspects of college life. Sports wound up being wiped out for months, and my daughter’s hopes of running cross country were dashed as Johnson & Wales eliminated that and other sports due to pandemic-related spending cuts.

Sports eventually returned, and in her senior year, my daughter accepted an invitation to try out for the women’s lacrosse team. She played soccer throughout high school and in her freshman year of college, but hadn’t played lacrosse since the spring semester of her final year at Tri-County Regional Vocational Technical High School, in Franklin, Massachusetts.

But Alana’s enthusiasm, athleticism and speed caught the attention of the Wildcats’ first-year head coach, and she made the team. Though not a starter, she had considerable playing time at both defensive and offensive positions.

While the team, which was undefeated in its conference, was making a strong run at the playoffs, her teammates and coach made sure that Alana scored at least one goal during a game that was well in hand on April 12, her 22nd birthday. My daughter scored three consecutive goals!

But as satisfying as that was, Alana’s greatest joy came from being part of the team’s success, as it finished the season with the No. 1 seed for the playoffs and then captured the championship on a warm, sunny Saturday afternoon at about the same time that most of Johnson & Wales’ Class of 2023 was graduating a few miles away.

Two days later, Alana graduated, along with her four senior teammates and the senior members of the baseball and softball teams.

That was the perfect ending for a class whose future seemed bleak just three years earlier, when their education, and lives, were rudely interrupted by a global health emergency that only recently ceased to be called a pandemic.

LARRY KESSLER ( is a freelance writer based in North Attleboro. He blogs at

Kessler, COVID-19