There are three weeks of Karl Shaffer’s senior year left, but he is back home in Greensboro, North Carolina.
He’s nearly 1,200 miles away from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s campus, and he feels even further away from his friends.
His bedroom is filled with all of the items he decorated his now-empty dorm room with for four years. He sees and talks to his peers and professors daily, but they’ll never be together in class again, let alone on campus all together. As grateful as he is for a great internet connection, he can’t imagine attending a virtual graduation.
Shaffer is part of the Jeffrey S. Raikes School of Computer Science and Management Cohort 2016. For four years, he and 27 others lived together and had classes together. They shared the same challenges, the hard work they had to continuously put in. They shared good times as well, like the nights they stayed up way too late in the lounges to play games like Cards Against Humanity, and the Tuesday nights they came stumbling back from the bars as a way to unwind.
Since UNL’s switch to online learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Raikes seniors have stayed connected through Zoom sessions and virtual gaming, but they still feel discouraged. Allison Inman, a senior computer science major in the Raikes program, said she and other seniors have missed being able to interact in-person since the time they spent together made them more like a family unit than anything else.
“The community inside the Raikes School is at the end of the day one incredible, big and happy family,” Shaffer said. “Like anyone who is torn away from their family out of necessity, it sucks and I miss each and every single person in that building a lot.”
Shaffer said the seniors have been preparing for a long time to say goodbye to their friends and faculty. Now, without their last two months together, Shaffer said he feels like the seniors won’t have the same closure as all the cohorts before them had.
“It was hard to come to terms with the fact that we will never see everyone all together again,” Inman said.
Shaffer said the hardest changes have been the cancellations of many end-of-year events. Raikes seniors typically have a showcase to celebrate finishing their capstone, a banquet to send off the seniors and a dinner to network with Jeff and Tricia Raikes, who launched the Raikes Foundation in 2002.
Shaffer said the administration and the Raikes School Student Advisory Board members are currently working on other ways they can celebrate, but he knows it won’t feel the same.
“I’m sure many seniors at UNL are realizing now, any sort of virtual graduation ceremony feels much less significant than taking part in the actual day with its regular pomp and circumstance,” he said.
To continue with the school year, Inman and Shaffer said the Raikes program is holding classes and all-school meetings over Zoom and using the instant messaging platform Slack for upcoming event changes.
“It is unfortunate that all of the communication is virtual, but that’s part of what we need to do to stay healthy,” said Raikes executive director Steve Cooper.
Inman and Shaffer have found various ways to keep in touch with other students. Inman said she uses Zoom calls, texts and Snapchat to stay connected with her friends. A few of them have even started a book club so they can still be a part of something together without the need of seeing each other face-to-face or in a public place.
Shaffer said a majority of the students in the Raikes program are members of a GroupMe group they named “MegaChat.”
“People are sharing everything from whether their internship was canceled to well wishes for people who are having to take long road trips home,” he said.
Shaffer said one of his favorite ways they’ve been staying in touch is a digitized version of one of the Raikes student traditions. Each Tuesday night, a group of students aged 21 and older would go to Iguana’s Pub on O Street to enjoy a drink and have a good time together.
Now on Tuesday nights, Shaffer said they hop on a Zoom call to catch up and play JackBox Games, which is a series of party video games.
“The Raikes community is doing its absolute best to stay connected and close throughout this situation, and I am very proud of us for that,” he said.
Though it’s been difficult for him and other seniors, Shaffer credits the program and the community for communicating and supporting the students through this. Inman and Shaffer said everyone in the program is in this together.
“As a senior looking back, the Raikes program is the single most important thing that has put me on the track that I’m on now,” Shaffer said. “It was a truly unique and amazing experience, and it’s like having an awesome, extended family.”