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Graduating during a pandemic: words of wisdom from 7 FCAT students

June 11, 2020

What is it like to graduate from university during a pandemic? These FCAT students may not have envisioned their convocation taking place on a screen as opposed to a stage, but they are nevertheless ready to take on their next challenges, whether that’s a new job, further education, or developing their artistic practice. 

Photo courtesy of Megan Morrison.

Indigo Porebska-Smith, a BFA graduate from the School for the Contemporary Arts dance program, says she is using this time to evaluate what is important to her and use that to guide future decisions. The pandemic has impacted her career prospects as there are fewer job openings in the arts, but she sees it as an opportunity to be creative in other ways and gain new skills. 

“I feel my university experience has taught me to trust myself. I have learned to listen to my body and make choices that are right for me,” she says. “Although this is not what I envisioned for my graduation, it feels right. My time at SFU is coming to a close and I am ready for change.”

Rachel Wong, a writer, speaker and podcaster, is graduating with a BA (Honours) in Communication and International Studies. She isn’t leaving SFU yet and will soon begin a new chapter as the Coordinator of Communications and Engagement at SFU's Surrey campus.

“While it’s sad that we won’t have a physical convocation, I take heart knowing that this doesn’t change the fact that I and my fellow graduates will still receive our degrees,” she says. “I think this pandemic has really gotten me to evaluate and think about my own priorities and relationships, and in the few social distancing get-togethers that I’ve had so far, I’ve become really thankful for the friends I do have.”

Wong recently presented her honours thesis, studying the ways in which Chinese seniors relate to the place of Chinatown through the lens of culturally significant food. 

“It was a privilege to meet and work with Chinese seniors and hear their stories. I never imagined that I would do research on my own, but when I presented my thesis over Zoom, I was floored at the response and the fact that I did it!” 

During these difficult times, Wong says it’s important to focus on what we can change in our own lives.

“We all have a unique voice, perspective, and opportunity. To quote the wonderful Miss Frizzle from Magic School Bus, ‘take chances, make mistakes, and get messy.’ I look forward to seeing how we as the COVID class will change the world in the years to come.”

Graduating from the School of Interactive Arts and Technology with a concentration in design, Matthew Fong has been working towards convocation for the past seven years. 

“I was looking forward to crossing the AQ pond on a brisk summer morning to celebrate this occasion with friends and family,” he says. “When the pandemic ceases, I’ll be able to have this monumental moment happen in the fall or next summer.”

As president of the Interactive Arts and Technology Student Union, Fong says he learned how to apply his knowledge in real time. During his SIAT courses, he learned how to balance confidence in his work with thinking critically about it to continually improve. 

Based on what he’s learned, he has some advice for his classmates: “Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable and brave. While the world of technology and design is always evolving, we have been prepared to adapt and continue growing with the world. If you ever get lost, remember to reflect and think of your intentions and why you’re doing what you’re doing. If need be, recalculate your journey and continue at the pace you need.” 

As FCAT’s undergraduate Dean’s Convocation Medal recipient, Ben McGuinness graduates with a BA in communication. His focus was studying the affordances and drawbacks of communication mediums and platforms and the impact they have on our lives. He’s now planning to find a job that synthesizes all of his skills and is considering grad school in the future.

McGuinness made the most of his time at SFU, participating in the communication co-op program, The Peak student newspaper, volunteering at events with the Student Ambassador Program, and attending free lectures and seminars open to the public. 

“Having transferred to SFU for my third year, I had to quickly catch up in getting to know SFU and all the things going on and on offer for students,” he says. “Receiving the medal made me feel recognized for my efforts, and really confirmed to me that I did in fact make an impression on the people I met. It made me feel like I had made the right decisions as an undergrad.”

He advises that a little bit of effort goes a long way in creating a positive experience and building connections to people.

“Engaging with what you're doing doesn't have to be hard but it's always worth it. And you don't have to be sure about exactly what you want to study or do, just be on the lookout for things that interest you and gravitate towards them—and let them gravitate towards you!”

FCAT’s graduate Dean’s Convocation Medal recipient is Sibo Chen, who graduates with a PhD from the School of Communication. His research focused on focused on environmental communication, and his dissertation explored public debates surrounding British Columbia's pursuit of liquefied natural gas (LNG) export since 2011. 

Now an Assistant Professor at Ryerson’s School of Professional Communication, Chen is teaching and continuing his research on public communication of risks and crises. Recently, he has started a new project that explores alternative media's coverage of COVID-19.

After spending seven years at SFU’s School of Communication (for both hi MA and PhD), Chen says he enjoyed the quietness of Burnaby mountain and the diversity of critical scholarship within the school. 

“You never know what your research interests will bring to you. If you are interested in graduate work, I would encourage you to explore existing opportunities. To me, graduate school is a life-changing experience.”

As North America’s first PhD in publishing, Amanda Lastoria says graduating during this time feels both anticlimactic and daunting. The pandemic has also limited her international opportunities as talks that she has been invited to give will likely be cancelled or move online.   

“It feels like the past isn’t quite finished because my degree hasn’t been marked with its ceremonial end and the future is especially uncertain because the job market is going through a major upheaval.”

Lastoria remains connected to SFU and is currently teaching a new undergraduate course that she developed called ‘Buy the Book: A History of Publication Design.’

“The focus is on materiality, so not being able to look at and feel books, magazines, newspapers, etc. as a class is a challenge at this time. We’ve been relying on publications that students have on their own bookshelves as well as digital surrogates.”

For her PhD research, Lastoria studied the evolution of book design and production of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. She is keeping busy writing a book chapter for an edited collection on teaching the Alice texts, and she is starting to revise her dissertation for publication. She has been approached by both university and commercial presses about publishing a book on the history of Alice book design, and she is re-shaping her work for a crossover audience of scholars, collectors and fans.

Throughout her pioneering PhD, Lastoria had to create her own opportunities, and she plans to continue doing so. 

“The hustle that I’ve developed will help me navigate an uncertain but productive future as the world recovers from the pandemic.”

Darylina Powderface graduates from the School for the Contemporary Arts with a BFA in theatre performance. She’s spending the summer as Cultural Coordinator at the Arts Council of New Westminster, where she’s currently planning a weekend long event that will lead up to National Indigenous Peoples Day on June 21.

She was was looking forward to having her family share this moment with her because she is the first of her siblings to attend and graduate from university. 

“However, I feel very privileged to have received a great deal of knowledge, skills and to have built relationships in and outside of the arts community. Growing up in a rural Indigenous community, I never thought I’d be where I am today, and I just want to say to every other Indigenous youth/student, these institutions weren’t made for us, but yet, we create the spaces so that we can succeed, we make the impossible, possible!”

Throughout her degree, she has learned to be resilient, take risks, and never give up. She leaves us with a beautiful quote from Chief Dan George:

“There is longing among all people and creatures to have a sense of purpose and worth. To satisfy that common longing in all of us we must respect each other.”