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Graduating During a Pandemic

2020 certainly hasn’t turned out to be the year anyone expected. For the Class of 2020, it has been a bittersweet time as they have been forced to celebrate the completion of their degrees without the pomp and circumstance of a traditional commencement to conclude their time as Mountaineers.

We checked in with several recent grads as they reflected on what they’ve been up to since graduation and how their time in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences prepared them for this new normal.

Heather Carr

Master of Social Work, ’20

Woman wearing commencement regalia with flowers on her cap
Heather Carr

Social Work graduate Heather Carr has relied on her training as a social worker and experience in the U.S. Army National Guard to navigate the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic.

“The Eberly College and the School of Social Work helped me prepare for the pandemic by simply training me in resilience and continuously educating me on the available resources to survive such different circumstances,” said Carr, a Middletown, New Jersey, native. “Since my first year at WVU, I have developed into a more organized, professional and passionate person. Joining the army also helped instill discipline and integrity into my daily life, which impacted my school work training tremendously.”

Her key to success during this challenging time has been relying on others for emotional support and returning that as well.

“The pandemic has created many lonely ‘worlds’ for people, which I was almost a victim of, too,” Carr said. “Luckily, I found comfort in my friends, family and fiancé who have helped me keep a positive attitude throughout the chaos. My advice to this year’s graduating seniors is to hold on to your close friends and important relationships as much as you can. Cherish them and stay in touch after graduation.”

As a social worker, she strives to offer that same support. While studying for her Licensed Master Social Worker certification that will allow her to practice therapy in West Virginia, Carr is continuing her military service as part of a COVID-19 taskforce delivering PPE supplies around the state.

Three people standing outside in front of Woodburn Hall, one wearing commencement regalia
Heather Carr at commencement in 2019

“I pursued this career because I always knew I wanted to be in a helping profession but just couldn’t decide on which one. Then in 2016, I had a close friend pass away due to a drug overdose. Looking back on it, I had seen many signs that he was struggling with an addiction but was uneducated until I joined the School of Social Work and felt confident in my ability to recognize those signs I had previously missed,” Carr said. “With that being said, I’ve become passionate about helping others who face addiction in his honor. This master’s degree is allowing me to pursue a therapist career for those suffering from mental illness, including addiction.”

Alika Lopatka

BS Biology and Psychology, ’20

When she decided to pursue a dual degree in biology and psychology, Alika Lopatka never dreamed it would help her navigate her biggest challenge to date – living through a global pandemic.

Person sitting outside wearing gold commencement regalia   
Alika Lopatka

“Double majoring has definitely been useful for me in handling unexpected circumstances,” said Lopatka, who calls Danville, Pennsylvania, home. “It taught me all about balance. I’ve learned to take everything one day at a time. I like to make a list of things I want to accomplish each day so I can stay motivated even when stuck inside most of the time due to the pandemic. I try to do things every day that I enjoy and help me feel relaxed despite everything going on in the world, such as taking walks, reading and listening to music. Learning how to manage my time and to always make room to relax were two of the biggest skills I learned during my undergraduate education at WVU that I continue to use.”

Her BIOL 455 class, Evolution of Infectious Diseases, with Professor Rita Rio, took on new meaning this year.

“That course focused on the origins of various infectious diseases, such as the flu and rabies. I learned in detail about how difficult vaccine development can be and what herd immunity means,” Lopatka said. “Taking that course has been useful for me when watching the news and listening to updates on the pandemic. I feel like BIOL 455 has enabled me to really understand what is going on.”

Person smiling seated outside with a blue bird perched on her arm
Alika Lopatka

She also credits her psychology coursework with helping her learn new strategies for self-care.

“Several of my psychology courses taught me useful skills for managing my mental health and practicing self-care during quarantine,” Lopatka said. “Courses such as Abnormal Psychology, Social Psychology and Psychobiology of Sleep have helped me in handling the stresses of the unexpected pandemic by providing ideas for self-care and how to stay in touch with people.”

Lopatka won’t have to travel far for her post-graduation plans. She is beginning a Master of Public Health degree at WVU this fall to continue working toward her career in epidemiology.

“It will be interesting to transition from undergrad to graduate school while staying at WVU. I imagine it will take some time for me to adjust to doing something entirely new despite being at the same university,” she said. “I will miss having classes on the downtown area of campus because all of my graduate classes will be in the Health Sciences area. I am, however, excited to explore a part of WVU that I was previously unfamiliar with, and I hope I will meet many new friends in my graduate program.”

Pim Trommelen

BA Sociology and Philosophy, ’20

Sociology and Philosophy grad Pim Trommelen describes WVU as his stepping-stone into the real world.

Man seated on edge of fountain with buildings in background
Pim Trommelen

“My arts and sciences education taught me resilience. Nothing can quite prepare you for a pandemic, especially when you don’t expect one to happen,” said Trommelen, who grew up in the Netherlands. “However, through being challenged during my time at WVU, I think I am prepared for anything that might be thrown at me.”

His keys to success during the pandemic? Staying connected with others.

“Relying on my support network and forcing myself to stay active have helped me get by. When the pandemic first started, it was quite a change of pace. All of a sudden, I did not leave the house anymore, nor did I see anyone,” Trommelen said. “I decided to stay with family in Nebraska, and that was a smart move. I always had a few people around who were up for a hike or a card game. We ended up painting the whole house and redoing the roof by ourselves!”

Those connections are what he’ll miss the most about Morgantown now that he’s moving to Chicago to pursue a master’s degree at the University of Chicago.

“It’s the small things, like late nights at the library, brunch on Sundays, happy hour downtown and so many more,” Trommelen said. “It’s the people who have made WVU such an amazing experience for me, and it’s them that I miss the most.”

Group smiling standing on rocks with sunset in background
Pim Trommelen with friends

Trommelen encourages this year’s seniors to make the most of whatever life brings.

“Be prepared for anything! We are living in a tumultuous world and country, and that can be and is quite scary. However, keep your head up and keep going forward,” he said. “Make sure you ask for help when you need it, check in on others and, most importantly, have fun, try new things, meet new people and make the most out of your last year at WVU.”

Olivia Young

BS Physics and Mathematics, ’20

Before coming to WVU, physics and mathematics grad Olivia Young had only been on an airplane once and had never traveled beyond the Mississippi River. But within one year of enrolling at WVU, she had already traveled to Puerto Rico to observe pulsars and was on a 19-hour flight to Australia to spend a summer there.

Woman standing in front of academic poster 
Olivia Young presents research

“The experiences I had during my undergraduate years have completely changed my view of the world,” said Young, who grew up in Short Gap, West Virginia. “They have made me deeply proud of who I am and where I come from. I have become emboldened in my passions, and I challenged and strengthened my beliefs and learned how to dig in, find my grit, and stay humble and kind.”

That perseverance, coupled with degrees focused on problem-solving prepared her for yet another experience she never expected to have – living through a pandemic.

Person wearing a hard hat looking up at a structure 
Olivia Young

“Being in a STEM field, your entire existence is wrapped up in adapting and moving forward toward a solution,” Young said. “My time at WVU has also shown me the importance of having a strong network of both your peers and mentors to rely on to work toward those solutions. Nobody makes it through a degree in physics alone, and this mindset of supporting each other is easily transferred to all the other things life throws at you, like COVID-19.”

To get by this year, Young has found solace in nature.

“I’ve worn in – or maybe worn out – a good pair of boots hiking hundreds of miles over the course of the summer. I have worked all day writing code and then headed to the back roads to clear my mind,” she said. “I have found my strength in the mountains. I have been constantly reminded how fortunate and privileged I am to be in a situation where I can spend time learning how to better balance myself during these times.”