From her parents' home in Cotton, Liz Poskie watched the commencement video pre-recorded for the College of St. Scholastica's 2020 graduates.
She watched the numbers count down before the video went live on Mother's Day.
Rather than sitting among her peers in a sea of royal blue, Poskie sat alongside her parents, her cap and gown delayed in the mail. Meanwhile, her sister watched the same commencement ceremony video from her home in Tennessee.
"It's hard to explain how I felt," Poskie said. "I felt happy, but then at the same time you want to be with your professor, you want to be with those people who helped you get there. But at that time it was the best we could do and I'm just thankful they did it."
A couple weeks ago Sunshine Day participated in a virtual ceremony with her cohort of social work classmates at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Kind words and memories were shared and to Day it was a display of faculty trying to make their graduation as special as possible despite the circumstances.
"To me, that felt like it was my graduation," Day said.
On Saturday, she plans to watch UMD's virtual commencement ceremony during which she will see her picture in a slideshow with the rest of this year's graduating class. A large family gathering to celebrate has been postponed.
Although their undergraduate careers didn't end with the face-to-face human connection those before them had the right to, both Poskie and Day were able to point to the silver linings in their own situations while reflecting on their higher education journeys.
For Day, that journey began about a decade ago when she gave college her first go, splitting two years between the U of M and Augsburg University. Like many students out of high school, she was unsure of the route she wanted to take.
"I wasn't being pulled by any of my classes or drawn to any of my classes for majors," Day said. "Nothing was really coming at me in a strong way."
She got her Associate in Arts degree and took some time away from school, eventually getting a job at the Indian Child Welfare Law Center in Minneapolis.
Sometime after her son was born in 2013, she knew she wanted to go back to school to expand her career. Despite living in the Twin Cities, Day decided to attend UMD for social work, which is a hybrid program meaning some of the classes are online and some are in person.
For five years, while working full-time and raising her son, Day commuted up to Duluth once or twice a month and sometimes as often as once a week.
She credits a supportive family, partner, friends and professional community as well as a flexible work schedule for being able to balance various responsibilities for the past five years.
Although she's had her first-grader home doing distance learning for the past couple months, she said the pandemic has made things easier on her in that sense that it's simplified her days.
"It almost provided a little breathing space for me," Day said. "I'm able to kind of consolidate my work, school and home life into kind of one realm."
Day encouraged others who are interested in going back to school after some time away to not be afraid to do so.
'It's like a fish-out-of-water experience, you feel like it's something you're not used to," Day said. "But once you get going it kind of all comes back. It's like riding a bike ... just keep trying."
As a first-generation student, Poskie's college journey at St. Scholastica began on the school's cross country team, where she formed immediate bonds she's confident will last a lifetime. Some of those same people helped her navigate unfamiliar waters, like applying for scholarships or financial aid and making a course schedule.
She urges other first-generation students not to limit themselves.
"It may sound cliche, but don't sell yourself short because you think it's gonna be too hard or you don't know your limitations," Poskie said. "You should just go for it."
Poskie's version of "going for it" was getting degrees in biology and psychology as she aims to become a family medicine doctor, ideally somewhere in the rural Midwest. She'll continue her education at the University of Minnesota Medical School, Duluth campus.
More than anything, Poskie said the COVID-19 pandemic is reminding her why she wants to continue down that path. With experience working in the Benedictine Health Center's nursing home and providing in-home care, she's especially passionate about caring for the elderly.
"I want to be able to take care of these populations and the coronavirus has affected them the most," Poskie said. "They're valuable ... eventually one day I want to be one of those doctors who are making sure they get adequate care."
While finishing up her degree from her parents' home the past two months, Poskie said she used the newfound downtime to do something she doubts she would have found the time to do with all the end-of-the term distractions. She reflected on her college experience: the connections she's made and all that she's learned.
"My coach, he always says look for the silver lining," Poskie said. "So that was my silver lining, time to reflect and just be thankful."