Feature

Stories from the Class of 2020

Words: Bethany Peterson Lockett ’20
Photos: Tony Hughes and Mike Hudson

Class of 2020 Feature - Lower Beamer

An empty Lower Beamer.

Photo by Tony Hughes

There was a plaque under the stairway of my campus house senior year dedicated to Beatrice Batson, a former Wheaton professor who had been well-loved. In that house, there were eight of us, made up of two separate groups combined for housing convenience and, to our delight, we became instant and inseparable friends. Beatrice Batson became our unofficial academic patron-saint. We decorated her plaque (tastefully and respectfully) and printed t-shirts. 

The “Batson House Girls,” as we called ourselves, were together on March 11, 2020, in Texas after a 17-hour road trip when one of us saw the notification. 

New email: 

Wheaton College President’s Office 

Important COVID-19 Update 

She shushed everyone ceremoniously and we obediently gathered in front of her, perching on the armchairs and lounging cross-legged on the floor. 

“Dear Campus Community,” she began. 

Please know that we take your welfare and safety very seriously. We have reluctantly come to a decision that we understand could be difficult for each of you in a variety of ways . . . We have decided that it would be in the best interest of our community to extend spring break for students by one week . . .

Cheers erupted, overpowering her as she tried to continue reading. A heated discussion about re-renting our beach house for a few more days began.  

She gasped.

We ask undergraduate students to remain or return home for the remainder of the semester . . . Additional information about Commencement, athletics, and other campus events will be forthcoming.”

We must have felt sad, and someone must have cried, but all I remember feeling was a kind of dizzying shock. A path that had seemed so clear only the day before was now clouded over with a fog of uncertainty and anxiety.


CONNECTION

At first, many students felt that Wheaton was overcautious, but within about a week after the initial email, it was clear they were simply slightly ahead of the curve. At the time that Wheaton made their decision, only a handful of colleges had gone online (for example, Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford), but the majority of schools had only committed to an extra week of spring break and other temporary measures. However, by the end of spring 2020, the National Center for Education Statistics estimated that 84 percent of undergraduates were moved to mostly or all online classes. In addition, the New York Times reported that, beginning with California, 42 states issued stay-at-home orders by April. 

The first obstacle faced by many 2020 graduates was where to go. Many of us found ourselves back in our parents’ homes, kicking younger siblings out of the bigger bedroom and painting over the bubble-gum pink we once chose for our walls at 12 years old. Other students scrambled to find places to stay for a few weeks with friends, negotiated with landlords to let them out of leases early, or applied for special permission to remain on campus. 

Once they arrived in a more permanent location, the realities of the pandemic meant that not only were seniors separated from the communities they’d spent three and a half years building on campus, but also that they weren’t able to invest in new relationships at home. This was the second challenge—to find connection in a time of isolation and separation. 

“Community really did shine through the isolation in beautiful ways for me, and I’m so appreciative of that,” Meredith Eades ’20 said. She hadn’t expected to live with her family again after college, but she found herself with nothing but time to spend with them during online schooling. “It was a really special time to connect with my parents and be friends with my parents now. I would have never had this time to really connect with them as an adult,” Eades reflected. 

She also found creative ways to keep in touch with her Wheaton community. “My calendar was very full with Zoom calls with different friends,” Eades laughed. They sent letters back and forth, kept up email conversations, scheduled FaceTime calls, and even played Battleship over video calls together just to keep in touch. “I don’t know what would have occurred had we graduated under normal circumstances. Because even now, we'll keep in touch in ways that I don’t think we would have if it hadn’t been normalized to be on devices so much,” she said. 

Eades expected to go on to graduate education in neuroscience to study how music impacts Alzheimer patients’ brains. While she still plans to return to this passion, she currently works remotely in sales and marketing. 

Other students were unable to return to their homes and had to creatively find ways to connect in unexpected circumstances. 

Danny Du ’20 was an international student at Wheaton from Shanghai, China. When the pandemic began, he knew that due to China’s lockdown policies he wouldn’t be able to return to his hometown like so many other students. Assuming that the pandemic would be a temporary interruption, Du accepted his close friend’s (Andrew Peters ’20) invitation to stay with his family in Virginia. 

At Wheaton, Du studied economics and international relations; he is especially passionate about U.S.-China relations, but he never expected how much he would have to put his academic studies into practice in this unexpected season. 

“During my first month at Andrew’s house, I was very reserved,” Du said. “I wanted to protect my imagery as a guest.” But there was also another layer. “I felt I had a deep sense of responsibility to bring a good image of China at that time to an American family,” Du said. He was conscious of the tension relating to U.S.-China relations that he saw around him.

However, as the lockdown dragged on, it was clear that one month was turning into many. During an online Easter worship service, Du experienced a “critical shift” in his relationship with the Peters family. He realized his primary identity was as a Christian and the uniting power of Christ for the global church. “I started to open up. I started to show my emotions and my difficulty of not seeing my parents. I started to engage in more tangible ways.” Instead of presenting a “staged imagery,” he cooked Chinese food, talked about his culture, and shared about his experience as a Chinese Christian growing up in home churches in Shanghai. 

“I grew up as an only child,” Du said. “So hanging out with American brothers and sisters in Christ made me realize during the height of the pandemic what truly matters is to be with people who are closest to you and who share the same kingdom identity with you to support each other.” 

Because of their experience living together during the height of the pandemic, Peters and Du started a U.S.-China Christian Young Professionals Fellowship, a group of Chinese and American Christian young professionals that meet together monthly to discuss ways to advance the kingdom of God in their vocations and passion in U.S.-China relations through intimate relationships. This fellowship has remained a source of community for Du and others as they’ve graduated and moved throughout the country. Du currently works as a real estate investment professional.

Wheaton College IL Class of 2020 Feature - MacEvans Hall

MacEvans Hall, an upperclassmen residence dormitory on campus.

Photo by Tony Hughes

These stories are not to say that the time of isolation and loss after Wheaton moved online was easy. Many graduates still feel the impact on their mental and spiritual health from the challenges and stress during those few months. But these stories do reveal how students found creative ways to survive and thrive during a difficult time in their lives that they could never have predicted or prepared for. 

Meanwhile on campus, Jared Smith ’20 had obtained permission to remain on campus as he completed his capstone project for the interdisciplinary studies (IDS) program—a heavy metal album exploring interfaith dialogue between the three Abrahamic religions. 

“I feel terrible for saying this, but COVID the best thing that happened to my college career,” Smith admitted. 

Before spring break, Smith was stressed about finding time to complete his project and had no idea where he would find a quiet space for recording “metal screams.” “Whereas my project should have been kind of ‘derpy,’ It ended up being one of the best things I’ve ever made,” Smith said.

Over the next year of the pandemic, Smith continued perfecting his album, which received acclaim when released from 16,000 monthly Spotify listeners. He now works in video production in North Carolina. 


DIRECTION

Wheaton College IL Class of 2020 Feature - Given Tanri

Given Tanri ’20 shares his story during the Gather Again chapel service.

Photo by Mike Hudson

On a sunny day in Hawaii in March 2020, Given Tanri ’20 sang along with fellow student performers in the Wheaton College Gospel Choir on tour, “Lord, I’m available to you.” 

This refrain would go on to represent Tanri’s experience throughout the pandemic as an international student from Indonesia. He, like Smith, remained on campus for the duration of the 2019–2020 school year, finding ways to serve those around him. He and fellow classmate Jeffrey Thompson ’20 helped organize a food pantry for grocery items left behind in a hurry, coordinated masked rides to the airport, and advocated to Student Government for academic flexibility (such as an extended drop date) due to the stress of the pandemic on students’ mental health and academic focus. 

“My senior year was tough,” Tanri said. “To begin with, I was dealing with questions on career and vocation and how to steward my gifts and my degree. And I was dealing with depression.”

He had to find a job quickly within his field (chemistry) to keep his visa status. In the end, he ended up working four different jobs in two states over the course of the past two years. 

Many more students had to be available to God’s direction in their lives as the pandemic continued to redirect their postgraduate plans. 

“I learned a lot on how to be flexible,” May Stevenson Ayers ’20 said. “The types of work I had to do, the ways I communicate with people, and how I read people look very different now.” 

Ayers had expected to begin a job as a project manager for a healthcare software company the day after graduation on their sprawling in-person campus, including traveling across the country to serve in various hospitals. Instead, she found herself working remotely with an overwhelming amount of responsibility with the company’s products suddenly in high demand. She had to adapt to an unexpected online environment without travel, and although it was difficult and she ultimately decided to leave her position for another company, the experience gave her professional opportunities she would not have otherwise considered. 

Right before the pandemic, she met Austin, her now-husband, while traveling in Texas. “If we had not had the pandemic, I would not have been as inclined to date him seriously remotely. But everyone was dating remotely regardless of where you lived,” she added with a laugh. 

Wheaton College IL Class of 2020 Feature - World Flags

Country flags in Anderson Commons, the Wheaton College dining hall.

Photo by Tony Hughes

Bethany Litteral ’20, M.A. ’23 had been preparing to student teach internationally in the fall of 2020 as part of her Wheaton College Graduate School studies in the Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages program. Program leadership tried to honor their original plans, but ultimately had to cancel her placement and find her a replacement in the Wheaton area. Although this was disappointing, it also opened her eyes to how God might use her in the future. 

“My roommate had to say so many goodbyes throughout her life that she stopped really investing deeply in relationships, because it was like, these are all temporary,” Litteral explained. For the first few years at Wheaton, Litteral could never seem to break down her friend’s walls. They could have fun, be goofy, and do things together, but being vulnerable and open was not on the table. But Litteral was determined and patient, and gradually her roommate began to trust her. Even though it was scary, she told Litteral, she wanted to invest in the friendship for the long run. Litteral, committed to her friend, told her she loved her almost every night, but never heard the same thing back. 

The week that Wheaton shut down, Litteral watched her friend have to say goodbye unexpectedly. Again. She wondered if this time, her friend would really be closed to her, and everyone else, forever. On the day that her roommate left, she handed Litteral a note. At the bottom, her friend had written “by the way, I love you too.” 

“I think what that week gave me was a very real understanding of how traumatic it is to have the people that you care about ripped away suddenly,” Litteral said.


CELEBRATION

Class of 2020 Feature - Cap and Gown Photo Prep

Preparing for cap and gown photos at the Gather Again reunion.

Photo by Mike Hudson

By March 27, 2020, it was clear to Wheaton administrators that the pandemic would not be lifting anytime soon. A Commencement ceremony was postponed indefinitely. 

After class surveys, conversations with student leaders, and further deliberation, the College created a short video to acknowledge the end of graduating seniors’ time at Wheaton, with the intention of planning a future ceremony or celebration. However, due to continuing restrictions based on Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance, even the class of 2021’s graduation ceremony was uncertain a year later and there was no opportunity for a make-up 2020 graduation. 

“Nothing is going to replace a lost Commencement ceremony,” said Cindra Stackhouse Taetzsch ’82, Senior Director for Vocation and Alumni Engagement. “Knowing we could never replicate or replace 2020 Commencement was a deep grief for all of us at the College.” For Stackhouse Taetzsch personally, she missed being able to welcome students to the Alumni Association, and she felt for her own daughters who graduated in 2020. 

When the pandemic restrictions started to lift and the staff could see their way clear to planning something special for this class, the Alumni Association conducted focus groups and brainstormed with 2020 alumni, ultimately deciding to host a special reunion over Labor Day weekend in 2022 entitled Gather Again. 

“A handful of graduates asked if we could reconstruct a graduation ceremony, but far more said, ‘We’re alumni now. We want to move on; we want to come back as alumni. Commencement never happened and it’s not going to happen, so let’s celebrate where we are now,’” Stackhouse Taetzsch said. More than 200 people attended the Gather Again reunion, which she believes provided some closure for the alumni who returned to campus. 

Aleks Nosewick ’20 attended Gather Again and reflected, “I loved the whole weekend. There was just enough planning for events to be fun. I enjoyed how the focus of the weekend was spending time with my classmates.” 

Class of 2020 Feature - Dinner in Coray Gymnasium

The Class of 2020 reunited for dinner and other celebratory activities during Gather Again.

Photo by Mike Hudson

There was much that the class of 2020 missed, from athletic banquets to departmental celebrations, but we cannot go back. We are not the people we were in 2020. Everyone has faced challenges in the pandemic and we have had to grow, change, and adapt. In that time, there have been reasons to celebrate, even if they were not what we had imagined. 

“From the start of spring break to the end of senior year, there were so many things to look forward to, and suddenly we had to get over it and accelerate into adulthood,” Brennan Burrows ’20 said. 

Brennan and his wife Emma Halcomb Burrows ’20 were planning their wedding at the time of Wheaton’s cancellation. They’d had no idea at the beginning of the pandemic that it would continue to impact their plans far beyond college. 

Even though they had to cut their guest list in half, they were grateful to still be able to get married in a more intimate ceremony in Minnesota during a lull in the pandemic and stay-at-home orders. They now live in California where Emma works as a teacher and Brennan works in construction management. 

“I just come back to gratitude for what did happen, because our wedding did feel like that celebration that we didn’t get with graduation. It made the celebration at our wedding even more meaningful,” Emma said. 


RESILIENCE

Wheaton College IL Class of 2020 Feature - Blanchard Hall

The central stairwell in Blanchard Hall.

Photo by Tony Hughes.

Perhaps what 2020 graduates have most in common is not what they lost, but the resilience they showed in finding a life they love even as they “accelerated into adulthood” amidst steep challenges.

The World Health Organization reported that in the first year of the pandemic, the “global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by a massive 25 percent.” Young people (ages 18-24) were disproportionately at risk for this increase. In addition, one survey by CNBC reported that about a third of companies instituted hiring freezes during the summer and almost 50 percent of companies expected to lay off workers. It did not make for an easy transition into post-graduate life. 

Sophie Miller ’20 had spent her first semester of senior year in Uganda. An applied health sciences major, Miller anticipated returning to Uganda after graduation. Instead, stuck in the U.S., she scrambled to find a job in healthcare. The only open position in her city, Madison, Wisconsin, was to work with a highly vulnerable population: in a memory-affected care facility. 

“It ended up being the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was such a grueling job physically and mentally and emotionally. It was the first time I saw a patient die. It was really challenging,” Miller shared. 

It was heartbreaking for Miller to watch her patients forget their families and their own identities, and it was exhausting for her to continue to self-isolate to protect her vulnerable patients even after the world began to open up again around her. 

“What helped me persevere and build resilience was finding meaning in what happened, the ways that I struggled and grew, and the things I learned about God and the people around me,” Miller said. “It clarified my calling to go into nursing and it led me to certain places or people that I might never have been led to if senior year had ended in a normal way. The work that I was doing was to be the hands and feet of Jesus to people who wouldn’t remember it five minutes later.”

She was not the only one working in a high-stress job.

Wheaton College IL Class of 2020 Feature - Alumni Association Travel Mugs

Travel mugs with the Wheaton College Alumni Association logo.

Photo by Mike Hudson

Tori Dobleske Kimel ’20 had planned to stay in the Chicago area, attend graduate school or find a job within the sociology field, and eventually get married to her boyfriend Micah Kimel. However, due to the pandemic, she moved home and was unable to leave due to her mother’s high-risk condition and her location near New York City, a hotspot for the virus at the time.

“I wasn’t allowed to get a job because I wasn’t allowed to leave the house because it was an unnecessary risk,” Kimel said. “I remember it was really isolating because I couldn’t even go for walks, go to Trader Joe’s, or get coffee.”

She decided to make a pivot in her career and become a high school teacher in North Carolina. “You could ask any teacher and they will say this past year was the hardest possible year to teach,” she said. “Kids have very little social, emotional awareness and regulation skills. Home isn’t necessarily a good place for all of my kids, so not having that ability to come to school really had a negative impact on a lot of them.” 

However, her determination to provide a stable environment for them despite her lack of resources and the other factors that made her student’s life challenging showed her that she was made for this work. She reflected, “It was hard, but it confirmed that’s what I wanted to do. That’s where God was supposed to put me.” She and her now-husband Micah just bought their first home in North Carolina and plan to stay for a long time. 

I came across a note recently that said “Resiliency in life comes when your daily experience fulfills the purpose for which you were created.” Finding purpose and meaning in challenges can be the ultimate safeguard against hopelessness and despair. 


COMPASSION

“I do feel like I have something kind of in common with all 2020 grads,” said Litteral. “You can’t really compare suffering, but you don’t really know what it feels like to lose everything that you’ve been looking forward to, anticipating, and getting ready to celebrate unless you were one of the people that suddenly had that all taken away.”

However, not all 2020 graduates resonate with each other’s experiences and the impact of those experiences. Some feel they made it out stronger while others still feel they are in the midst of the struggle. Litteral reminds us to have understanding and compassion when another’s reaction is different than ours. 

“Different people are going to work through pain in different ways,” she said. “When somebody feels anger, that’s probably still the knot of grief trying to untangle itself, and when somebody isn’t angry the way that you are, maybe they are processing their grief in other ways.”

Life is unexpected. And none of these graduates ended up where they thought they would. But they have found joy, comradery, and determination in the process anyway, even if their stories do not look the same. 

“It’s not that we’re on the same boat, but that we’re in the same storm,” said Tanri. “We’re all on our own boats. It’s easy to overlook that. Everyone’s dealing with the pandemic slightly differently. We have different challenges. Some challenges are bigger or smaller, some are invisible. It’s a good reminder for all of us, just to be gracious towards one another, and more importantly, for me, who can be self-critical, to be more gracious towards myself.”

Wheaton College IL Class of 2020 Feature - Westgate Alumni Association

Westgate building, home to Wheaton College Alumni Association offices.

Photo by Tony Hughes

Wheaton College IL Class of 2020 Gather Again

Members of the Class of 2020 who attended Gather Again. (Not all attendees pictured.)

Photo by Mike Hudson

Related Articles