Alina Panek ‘20 is one of more than 2,300 Denison students who cut short their campus experience in the Spring of 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. She and her fellow classmates also missed their in-person Commencement, which will be rescheduled. Panek, a President’s Medalist, shares her thoughts on her time at Denison and her feelings about graduating into a pandemic.
In my mind, there was no way that a small, liberal arts school would be closing campus for a pandemic when we were safe on The Hill, in the small village of Granville, especially not when I had less than half a semester to go for graduation.
The sacrifice of accepting that both my senior spring break plans and my speaking opportunity in New York city for a college media conference were canceled seemed acceptable if it meant that I would be able to return to school, finish up and hang out with my friends for the last time.
My Denison career felt like I had spent three years setting up dominoes in a line, carefully planning for graduation at the end, and naughty brat COVID-19 knocked it over before I was ready.
Many opportunities had to align for me to arrive in Central Ohio. A first-generation student from Chicago, I could see my future unfolding around me as my parents and my sister drove me to West Quad. I understood what stood at stake here. There were many opportunities for me to grow, but I also knew that I would have to be doing a lot of this on my own.
The inspirational speeches given at our Induction made my heart feel bright and my shoulders heavy, excited for the years ahead. After Induction, I saw my dad shed a few tears, which in turn made me cry too, knowing that this would be a while until I would get to see them again.
When classes started, a picture of my parents along with the tassel I was given at Induction hung on my desk, promising graduation will be a success worth it all. I used these as a guiding principle for challenges I would face at Denison, I grew from the successes and adversity that I faced.
Faced with many scary new things, I co-founded and led Denison’s First Generation Network, so first-generation students can learn from each other and get support that only friends and peers can give. With many possibilities to study, I focused my energy on a subject that made me feel alive. I became Editor of the Denisonian and found a new family on the editorial board as passionate as I am. I am an entirely different person than the 18-year-old my parents dropped off at Smith Hall in 2016.
In March, I was overjoyed to hear that President Adam Weinberg promised there would still be graduation, a celebration I sorely needed. It was the glimmer of hope that I needed while chugging through my assignments, scraping the bottom of my barrel for motivation. Denison also went above and beyond caring for their students financially, not only providing emergency grants for travel home but also stipends for work-study students, which allowed me to focus on job-hunting.
It is hard to imagine that it might be months until I can hug my friends again (maybe years until I see my international ones, gulp). I’ve been sustaining myself with Zoom calls, group chats, and virtual birthday parties in the meantime. I’m grateful for the experience that the Denison community has granted me, even if it was taken way too soon.
Graduating into a pandemic is terrifying. No doubt about that. The encouragement that I needed has been provided by so many, Denison professors, staff, and others have made venturing out into this new and scary world a little easier. Living through a historical moment sucks but it teaches an important lesson, there’s so little that is promised in life.
I know one thing for sure, I’ll never take walking on campus for granted again.