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‘My college career fizzled out’: Three alumni talk graduating a semester early

Illustrated by Chloe Xu

By Morgan Gage     2/9/21 9:47pm

Although many Rice seniors are eyeing their May 15 graduation date, Emily Duffus (McMurtry College '20) transitioned from student to alumnus sooner than she had expected. Instead of settling into a new semester’s schedule these past few weeks, she has been working full time at a mobile urgent care in Houston as a medical technician and part-time as a contact trader with Rice Crisis Management. She spends her time driving around in an SUV with a nurse practitioner to address patients’ medical concerns in the comfort of their own homes.

Duffus is one of various Rice alumni who decided to graduate early last fall after the pandemic turned their senior year plans upside down. The Thresher checked in with three graduates to see how their transition out of Rice has gone. 

Medical care and managing Pub

Last summer, Duffus found her plans derailed by the pandemic, leading her to graduate a semester early to work before medical school.

“When everyone got sent home in the spring, I had plans that summer to find a job and help out with my ambulance squad in my hometown in New Jersey,” Duffus said. “I definitely still did [volunteer], but I couldn’t really find a job, because there weren’t really any jobs.”

When Rice announced the reduction in price for online summer classes, Duffus decided to enroll in some, racking up the credits she needed to graduate. 

“It's the same class that’s usually $3,000 for, like, $750,” Duffus said. “Because I was able to take those classes, I kind of got all the credits I needed and only needed one more semester.”

Originally, Duffus said that she planned to be a full-time student in the fall semester and then only take her year-long research course in the spring. 

“I realized that I had all of the credits and had seen what online classes were going to be like and what a virtual Rice was going to be like and how the in-person experience was so different than it was before,” Duffus said. “I figured it would be better for me to just do my research without taking the course through Rice.”

Currently living off-campus, Duffus said she can still see her friends in the Houston area, just as she would as an enrolled student. However, without classes, she has more time to spend with those friends — along with a break from classes and a chance to make money before going to medical school.

“I spend a lot of time with my friends because I’m coming to the time where we’re all going to be splitting up and not living in the same place anymore,” Duffus said. “It’s really great to have [time to spend with friends]. Especially because I always get involved in so many activities, I can’t remember the last time that I really had no responsibilities like this. I have to go to work, but once I leave work, nothing’s coming home with me. I don’t have anything else to do.”

While Duffus said that she initially felt bad for leaving extracurricular activities that she had made year-long commitments to, when she reached out to the executives of her clubs she was met with support and congratulations. Even after graduating, she says that she is still the general manager for Willy’s Pub.

“I am still the [general manager] of Pub, which is funny, ‘cause there’s no Pub,” Duffus said. “But they voted and said it was okay for me to stay on for the semester because the changed rules are that the [general manager] has to be 21, and we didn’t have anyone who was 21 yet that was interested in doing it, so I was like, ‘I’ll just stay on for an extra semester.’”

It is this lingering connection to campus that Duffus said makes her experience different from the typical graduate.

“I definitely still feel really strong connections to Rice and things that happen at Rice,” Duffus said. “I still feel like I’m kind of involved, but it’s nice to get this transition period where I am an alumni but still able to see McMurtry emails.”

From Singapore to Chicago

Camille Pierre-Louis (Hanszen College '20) headed straight into the workforce after her graduation last fall. After 115 job applications, Pierre-Louis said that she was able to find a job she wanted: an entry coordinator at McMaster-Carr Supply Company. She says that she manages a myriad of orders a day and makes sure that the company is neither over nor understaffed.

After closing on her first home, a condo, right before graduation, Pierre-Louis began renting it out to tenants. Between that, starting a full-time job and moving to Chicago, she has remained busy, but said that due to her planning ahead she has had a smooth transition to post-graduation life.

Before COVID-19 affected study abroad programs, Pierre-Louis planned to spend her last semester in Singapore. Because of this, she had already done the work to have her graduation requirements done by the end of her senior fall semester.

Camille Pierre-Louis (Hanszen College ‘20), said she “took a shot in the dark” by asking President David Leebron to take graduation photos with her last fall. Him agreeing to a photoshoot was one of many surprises that came out of the decision Pierre-Louis made to graduate a semester early. Photo courtesy Daniel Davis and L Diop

“I decided to graduate early and take advantage of that extra semester,” Pierre-Louis said. “If I didn’t want to go to school, I could take a gap or start working immediately depending on how the job market fluctuated.”

With the shift to a virtual college experience, Pierre-Louis said that she did not feel like she was missing out on much by deciding to graduate early. 

“We can’t be together anyway,” Pierre-Louis said. “If I was missing 100 Days or the big senior days, then I’d be really sad about it, but since we can’t do it anyway, I feel like this was the best move for me.”

That isn’t to say that the loss of that in-person experience did not affect her. Pierre-Louis said that it felt like “shots to the heart” as she experienced the feeling of losing senior year.

“I definitely was disappointed in not going to Singapore,” Pierre-Louis said. “Then I realized we couldn’t be together at all. Like, we couldn’t be in the same room playing Uno or go to the [Multicultural Center] to hang out. You see the movies, [senior year] is this big, hyped-up thing, and it just not happening was disappointing.”

In addition to that feeling of loss, she also felt the weight of her decision to graduate early. 

“I was also anxious, because what if I made the wrong decision?” Pierre-Louis said. “What if COVID goes away tomorrow, and my friends are together, and I made this preemptive choice? There was a lot of anxiety. Then, there was also the excitement of the future coming and being ready to be an adult.”

Still, Pierre-Louis said she had unexpectedly good moments come out of her senior year.

“I took a shot in the dark ‘cause I really wanted to have a graduation of some sort, so I asked President Leebron if he would do a photoshoot with me,” Pierre-Louis said. “He actually did it. I have pictures. I do have pictures [where] we are socially distanced and masked. It was like a rap album cover almost — it looks really cool.”

However, Pierre-Louis is optimistic looking forward. She is currently preparing to earn her MBA paid for by her employer and said she thinks that Chicago, her new home, will be a new place to make her own community again.

“I’m 21. I need to be around other young people,” Pierre-Louis said.

Throughout the pandemic and since graduating, Pierre-Louis has remained connected to friends by putting in the effort to stay in touch.

“In the fall, the easiest way [to stay in touch] was because I was messaging people all the time as a Soul Night coordinator,” Pierre-Louis said. “Since graduating, it’s really just been personal motivation to contact people and making sure I do my part and be a good quality friend. If I ever think about a person, I message them.”

Fizzled endings and new beginnings

About 790 miles away from where Pierre-Louis has settled into Chicago, Tina Liu (Sid Richardson College '20) has moved to New York City, where she is working on a certificate in product design and management from the Pratt Institute and getting ready to start working at Hulu in March as an associate project designer.

“I interned [at Hulu for the 2020] summer and got a return offer to come full time,” Liu said. “I still think it was stressful, because the whole hiring process slowed down because of COVID. It took them until February to get back to me with an actual offer, so I was kind of freaking out like, ‘Am I going to be unemployed?’ It’s nerve-wracking.”

Looking at the potential of a senior spring, Liu realized that because of the pandemic she was no longer getting the full college experience.

“In terms of academics, I wasn’t learning anything that was applicable to my career choice in the future, which was design,” Liu said. “I was just like, ‘I might as well graduate early, because sticking around won’t really benefit me other than the social aspect of being able to stay connected with my friends longer.’”

For the senior year that she did have, Liu said that she felt like she missed out on milestone moments like her last in-person exam, Sylly Week and Beer Bike. 

“I didn’t have that experience of being able to know that I’m going to see people for the last time. The expectation that I had was [my senior year] was going to be a lot more eventful and sentimental,” Liu said. “What actually happened was just my college career fizzled out.”

Devoid of the typical senior experience, Liu said she felt like college came to an anticlimactic end.

“It was like, ‘Okay, you’re done. We’ll mail you your diploma,’” Liu said. “It’s kind of weird knowing my last class was just me turning off Zoom. It’s just not that feeling of walking out of a classroom for the last time or walking out of an exam room. You just shut your laptop, and you’re like, ‘okay, that’s my last thing of college, I guess.’”

Liu’s move to New York was also different from what would happen in a typical year.

“Moving to New York was definitely stressful,” Liu said. “Because you’re going on a plane, and there’s travel restrictions. You have to get tested three days before you leave and then get tested three days after you get here and quarantine. It’s definitely a more interesting experience.”

Since she’s moved to New York City, Liu has found ways to stay in touch with her friends by FaceTiming them and checking in.

“I do think it’s a little bit difficult [to stay in touch] because your life is so much different from people who are still attending Rice,” Liu said. “They still have class, and you don’t necessarily know how busy their schedules are or what their life looks like anymore. You’re separated from that. Especially for me, I’m in a different time zone as well, so it’s kind of figuring out how our schedules line up.”

Liu said that student groups were able to connect and create a community in ways that surprised her in the fall semester. 

“Even for the Thresher, we were able to continue working and doing print issues,” Liu, who was the Thresher’s art director from 2019 to 2020, said. “Being able to see how the community adapts with the changing circumstances was really surprising. People find different ways to stay connected.”

Moving forward, Liu’s foreseeable future will be remote as well. She said that it leaves her with the same sense of not knowing what to expect that she had going into last fall semester.

“You don’t really know what it’s going to look like,” Liu said. “You don’t really know if you’re ever going to meet your coworkers in person or if you’re going to get that in-person experience. Even though it is a little anxiety-inducing, I think it’s still exciting, because, regardless of how it happens, it’s going to be a new experience.”

[2/10/2021 at 11:43 a.m.] This story was updated with clarifications regarding Pierre-Louiss job responsibilities.

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