Why graduation feels empty

Published 8:54 am Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Nick Culver worked for years to get to this point, endlessly practicing his French horn, performing, and studying theory, all to graduate this month with a music degree from Michigan State University.

For most of us, the big event at the end of college is wearing a cap and gown and walking in a graduation ceremony in front of our family. For Nick, the pinnacle of his studies was the final recital in front of his peers. But because of COVID-19, he couldn’t even practice with his accompanist, much less perform for an audience.

What should have been the high point of his college career was him playing alone on a stage to an empty concert hall with a virtual audience. “It was also crippling to look at my four years and say, ‘This is what it has amounted to,’” he said.

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Nick’s special – few can perform “Irremediable Breakdown” by Nathan Pawelek solo to an unseen audience – but his feeling of emptiness is common to millions of people who were expecting senior proms, graduation ceremonies and final performances.

It doesn’t make the feeling any easier, but cognitive science has an explanation. It’s called the peak-end rule. Regardless of how long, hard, painful or happy an experience was, your judgment of that experience will be determined by the most extreme moments or what came last.

The peak-end rule is why going to Disneyland evokes memories of the time you met a real-life princess or the day ending with a parade and fireworks – not the long lines and high prices. It’s why companies send you thank you cards when you buy something or condolence cards when your pet dies. That way, your last memory isn’t spending money or putting your dog down.

These peak-end moments make such an impact on us because they elevate moments of happiness, instill pride by capturing us at our best, provide insight into ourselves, and connect us to each other, such as with parades, weddings, baptisms and graduations. And for poor Nick, you take away the events created to give affirmation, fundamentally changing the college experience.

Colleges and universities have other problems — namely, how to gather large numbers of students in lecture halls, cafeterias and stadiums without infecting them – but leaching the graduation experience of the peak-end will have a dampening effect on how alumni remember their college experience, leading to lower college ratings and alumni giving.

Already, we’re seeing ill effects in the recent graduates. Members of the high school class of 2020 report feeling lost. College students, lacking the traditional transition from campus to adulthood, are losing their support network without receiving the expected boost that comes with the public displays of parental pride. Even worse, some were pushing toward finals with graduation as a reward. Now that’s gone and so is their motivation. Today’s trauma and burnout will likely lead to generation at greater risk of developing clinical anxiety and depression.

“Not having a physical graduation or the activities that typically accompany it did a number on my ability to accurately perceive my own life and the future, mainly in that my actions only existed in a vacuum,” said Nick. “There were entire groups of people I realized I would not see again, and many individuals that I wished I could spend time with and collaborate with.”

Obviously, feeling lost is nothing compared to graduating during a pandemic and into the worst job market since the Lindy Hop was popular. But that doesn’t make this any less real for the 3.7 million people graduating high school and the 3.9 graduating college. They’ll feel the absence of the pomp and circumstance for the rest of their lives.

We’re human and we adapt. Some colleges are holding graduation ceremonies on Minecraft. Sallie Mae is holding a virtual graduation. Both Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey are offering virtual commencement addresses to the Pandemic Class and Michelle Obama is hosting a virtual prom. Some schools are even mailing their graduates caps and gowns with their diplomas and — I kind of like this touch — yard signs and commemorative face masks.

This creativity provides hope for us all. No matter how long this goes on, we, too, go on.

Lilly Kofler is the vice president of Behavioral Science and is the U.S. lead of Hill+Knowlton Strategies Behavioral Science Unit.