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Season 1: College student attends online graduation during pandemic

Keaton Wilson, Graduating College Student, responds from Tennessee

This interview took place on April 17, 2020.

Keaton was looking forward to his college graduation ceremony in Martin on May 2, 2020, from the University of Tennessee. He never dreamed it would be via Facebook Live instead of in-person in front of thousands of students, parents, and faculty. After losing his father to cancer the day of his final high school exam four years ago, he's now facing an unknown path into his career as he finishes his bachelor's degree. He has been on a long journey of self-discovery and has had to grow up faster than most young adults his age. This is how he is responding.

Guest bio:

Keaton is currently a senior at the University of Tennessee at Martin who is pursuing a BSBA degree in Business Management with a minor in English. In his free time, he loves hiking and playing guitar. He also loves writing and is in the process of writing his first memoir.




Sally Hendrick (00:39):

Hello Keaton Wilson. How are you doing today?

Keaton Wilson (00:42):

I'm doing well. How are you?

Sally Hendrick (00:44):

Good. So tell me who are you, what do you do?

Keaton Wilson (00:47):

Well my name is Keaton Wilson. Right now I'm a college student. I'll be graduating in about two weeks actually. Yeah, in May 2nd, with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration. My major is business management with a minor in English. And I'm also a student tutor at the writing center on campus. And I'm also the public relations and strategic planning intern at the Wesley foundation, which is a campus Methodist ministry on UTMs campus.

Sally Hendrick (01:23):

UTM. And where is UTM?

Keaton Wilson (01:25):

UTM is the University of Tennessee at Martin, in Martin Tennessee. So it's in West Tennessee. About an hour from Humboldt. Yeah. I grew up here. This, the town I've, I've, I've grown up in and I just, I love it here. And Martins, just another small town, but it's, it's, so it's not much of a difference, but it's, it's good to have a different change of scenery a little bit.

Sally Hendrick (01:55):

Yeah. Well, and you are about to graduate then in a couple of weeks, but obviously it's not going to be a public event. What's happening? What are they doing?

Keaton Wilson (02:08):

So we got the email from chancellor, Dr. Keith Carver about a week or so ago saying that we will have a virtual graduation ceremony at 11:00 AM on Facebook live.

Sally Hendrick (02:25):

What day is that?

Keaton Wilson (02:26):

On May 2nd.

Keaton Wilson (02:28):

So when the traditional graduation ceremony was supposed to be held, it will be a virtual event instead. And then we are planning on having a traditional ceremony in August and so we'll see how that pans out.

Sally Hendrick (02:43):

Now. Did you guys actually order caps and gowns and all of that for the graduation?

Keaton Wilson (02:49):

So technically I get a pass of because my cap and gown from high school was all black. And so that's what's required for my college graduation. So I can use that. I do have to buy a gold cord because I'll be graduating with honors. But, and, and I think that's about like $10. But typically, yes. For students who are graduating, you need to buy the cap and gown and, or it's if you're graduating with honors or anything like that,

Sally Hendrick (03:21):

But obviously it doesn't matter when you wear it. For this one, they're just going to be calling you out over a live presentation on Facebook. Right.

Keaton Wilson (03:30):

That's how I understand it. Yes.

Sally Hendrick (03:32):

Okay. So no faces necessarily of all the students and just a call out of your name and maybe where you're from or something like that, or your major.

Keaton Wilson (03:43):

Right. So they'll basically just say everybody's names aloud and what the end, if you're graduating Summa cum laude or Magna, you know? Yeah. And then what department you're graduating, you know, like what, like what degree? And then I think, I think that's about it, but it'll be a new experience for everybody. It took them a while to officially decide on that because I remember so we, so Martin closed its doors on March 11th, and when we got the announcement, we had to leave that day. Yeah, well those, those who live in the dorms had Friday to move stuff out and maybe a little bit over the weekend, but other than that you had to be gone. So Wesley closed its doors that day. And so everything just shut down. And then there were no classes that Thursday and Friday. And then starting that following Monday, it was online only and then, but at that time it was only going to be almost on only until April 3rd, but I had to gut feeling that, that it was going to be extended much longer than that, most likely throughout the rest of the year and throughout the summer as well.

Keaton Wilson (05:06):

And so the waiting period between March 11th to April, what, what, what's today? So we got, so we got word around April 8th, I'd say that, that we were going to have a virtual ceremony and then a traditional ceremony in August. So the, so there was a lot of waiting time being like, what are we going to do? So I imagine, I imagine that their conversations were I think the faculty Senate was actually talking with other people within the university of Tennessee system. And then I think they were actually branching out and talking to other universities around the area to see what they were planning on doing and what the, I think was just coming together to brainstorm ways to move forward.

Sally Hendrick (06:00):

So as far as like instruction goes, you've still been in classes online for the last couple of weeks and you've got a little bit more to go. How's that going?

Keaton Wilson (06:11):

It's hard. But thankfully, you know, it, it's, it's not hard just for the students. It's hard for everybody. Right. So it's, it's been a trial and error kind of thing for a lot of the time. And with capstone, with my capstone course, especially the whole class is pretty centered around this giant simulation. And so I have to meet with my group, you know, and clearly I can't do that now. So we've been having to do it over FaceTime and stuff and then some professor. And so I've had to take three exit exams before I graduate. And I took one that, cause we, so we got word that, that the university was closing on Wednesday and my exam was on Thursday, so they went ahead and honor my appointment and let me take my test. And then a couple of weeks later we got word that all the exit exams would be waived first in years, but that semester only. So that took some of the, you know, worry off. But then professors were placed like gave replacement assignments for the exit to compensate for that. And a lot of professors had been offering extra credit and just being a little more lenient on, on students and kind of kind of checking in on their students. Martin has always been really good about that.

Sally Hendrick (07:46):

Now have you had a problem that you've noticed, and I may have to ask this to someone else, but have you had a problem with other students not having wifi or access, easy access to get into these classes or FaceTime for that matter on their phones? That's just an, an Apple phone type of thing.

Keaton Wilson (08:07):

Right. So when, so when the university first closed, that was a lot of students worried, you know, and a lot of professors worried about that too because how can you do online work without the wifi? Right. So the UTM Martin the UT Martin library actually announced something on Facebook that said, Hey, if you don't have a Charter account, Charter is allowing students and K12 families free wifi access for 60 days, getting March 16th

Sally Hendrick (08:47):

And Charter is the area's internet provider, right?

Keaton Wilson (08:52):

I think so. Yeah. Yeah, yeah,

Sally Hendrick (08:54):

Yeah. Okay. Yeah, I mean that's, that's a local name. So a lot of people listening may not recognize that. So I'm going to actually be talking to the chancellor of UT Martin at some point. I was supposed to talk to him yesterday. I was supposed to talk to him maybe three or four days ago. He's very busy and he's having a lot of emergency meetings popping up all the time. So that interview has not actually happened yet, but I definitely am going to be talking to him and incorporating his messaging into this. And I also spoke with a college counselor. She is a private college counselor, someone you know, Elizabeth Antony and I've got an interview that I already recorded with her last week. So I will be pulling all three of these together as you know, like a little mini series if you will, around college. So as far as what's going on, you're still working for the writing center in a way.

Keaton Wilson (09:58):

Yes. I wanted to talk to you about that. So I am working with the writing center over zoom. That's how I conduct my sessions. And I've been meeting with people a few times a week students a few times a week to discuss essays and final papers and stuff, cause all of that still going on and coming up. And I have meetings with my staff every week. So every Monday we chat over, zoom about how online sessions are going, you know, what are our concerns. And the director said that if, if graduating seniors have the free time in the summer, we could work throughout the summer over zoom for tutoring. And then since graduating seniors will have a degree by this summer, I'll also be staff instead of a student tutor. I would no longer be a student tutor. I wouldn't be.

Keaton Wilson (11:01):

Yeah. So so I plan on doing that if Lakeshore falls through, which is something that I wanted to also talk to you about. So for those of you who don't know, Lakeshore is a nonprofit organization that is basically this summer camp, but they work throughout the year, so throughout the year. So throughout the fall and spring, they have retreats every so often. But then summer is when they really, you know, shine because they, it's one big summer camp for kids. And I worked on staff as a counselor, as a camp counselor. And for two weeks of the 12 weeks I was there, I was also a lifeguard. So I, I was on staff.

Keaton Wilson (11:47):

Yeah, it was summer 2018 and then I realized that this is my very last to do Lakeshore because I'll be 23 the summer and I'll be graduated by then. And so I was reluctant to apply because I didn't know what my plans were for after graduation. And now that this has come up, I don't know if Lakeshore's even going to happen. It'll be, it, it, it will really be a blessing if it does happen. And selfishly, I really want it to happen, not only for myself, but I want the kids to be able to experience the camp as well. But more importantly than than anything, I want what is best for our world. And if that is not having camp at all or at, or at least delaying it some, you know, somewhat I'll, I'll, I'm onboard with whatever they decide. I think the American camp association, I think that's what the name is. They will make the official decision on summer camp when that time comes, but a lot of camps have already called it and said that they would not do a summer camp this year.

Sally Hendrick (12:59):

Now some universities have also called off fall classes as far as in person, they're planning way ahead right now. Boston university is one of the ones, I think it was Boston university or Boston college. I can't remember which one but whichever one it was they called off the fall semester as far as in person teaching and they are going to have an online semester then so that's pretty serious and I wonder if that's going to happen around the country or if it's going to be pockets of that happening here and there. It's going to really make a difference in where people go. We've got a lot of graduating high school seniors who don't know what's going to happen. This fall. We even have a child that's in the 11th grade who was supposed to do a pre senior year, you know, rising senior program at a college this summer.

Sally Hendrick (13:56):

But that may get canceled and so we don't know how that's going to play out either. It may be an online thing and that would be unfortunate because that really wasn't the purpose of, of why we signed up our child for that. So who knows what's going to really happen going forward. So as far as you though you're, you'll be done with classes, you'll have your degree and then you're going to be going out into the real world to get your big job. You know that first job that you go into. Obviously you're doing different things and you've got some other opportunities, which is amazing for you to have that with the university, with the writing center and then potentially with the camp. But beyond that, what are you thinking about or what's worrying you or challenging you about it?

Keaton Wilson (14:44):

A big worry that I have right now is that businesses will start to open back up too soon and we'll get another wave of the virus come fall. That's what that, that's one of my biggest fears in all of this because at this point anything is, is a possibility and really nothing is off the table.

Sally Hendrick (15:12):

That interferes with your job hunt?

Keaton Wilson (15:14):

It does and it does because Apple has actually been on my mind for a long time getting a job at Apple and I've been keeping an eye on them. And their retail stores have been closed for a one, I want to say over a month now. They've been, they, they closed pretty, pretty soon after all of this kind of blew up. And so I'm keeping an eye on them and I know that they're still, like, they came out with a new new iPad in, in the middle of the pandemic.

Keaton Wilson (15:47):

So production may still be going on, but as far as retail stores go, they're, they're close right now. I know I don't have to worry too much about what I'm, what I'm going to do come, come fall because if Lakeshore doesn't work out, I've got a writing center, you know, position that I can throughout the summer. And I'm also a freelance editor. I've been editing some novels throughout my time in college and so that, that will give me some time to really process and fit and try to really discern what I really want to do. College since going online I think it would be easier. People have been asking me, you know, has, hasn't school just become so much easier for you? Like you have so much more time on your hands. I'm like, I actually no, like I've actually had to jump through a lot more hoops.

Keaton Wilson (16:44):

I'm trying to juggle everything and all of my assignments and stuff like that. And with my Wesley internship, my, my PR and strategic planning internship, like a lot of that work was done on campus at the Wesley building interacting with people, interacting with alumni, building relationships with regional churches. And it's much harder to do that virtually and from a distance. But we've been, we, we, we've been adapting. I'm very proud of our, all of our student leaders for coming up with, with innovative ways to stay connected. Like we started a blog, a UTM Wesley is the name. And we post about three times a week and we've had many volunteers you know, be like, Hey, I want to contribute. So that's been great. So, but it's been, it's, it's definitely been a lot. Definitely a time of transition. And, and I, and I know that's the case for everybody.

Keaton Wilson (17:49):

But since things have gotten so much more hectic for me over the past month or so cause it's been a little bit over a month now I haven't had much time to really process, not only what's going on in our world because it's a lot that's going on in our world, right. But I haven't had much time to really think all that much about the future because school has been, has been so busy and now I'm kind of in the homestretch with, with me being only two weeks away from, from getting my degree. So that it, it's exciting. It's scary, it's fun, it's awesome. It's, it's bittersweet at the, I think that's, yeah, a good way to put it. Yeah.

Sally Hendrick (18:33):

Yeah. Well definitely the first graduating class dealing with COVID-19, that's for sure. It's kind of strange. It's a very strange time that we're in. So as far as like where you are locally, are there challenges you're facing or worries that you're dealing with in your local space?

Keaton Wilson (18:59):

Well my mom is someone who, I don't know a better way to put it. She's a smoker over 50. And

Sally Hendrick (19:11):

Say that again at your, it cut out.

Keaton Wilson (19:13):

She's a smoke over 50.

Sally Hendrick (19:14):

A smoker over 50. Yeah.

Keaton Wilson (19:16):

Yeah. I don't know how else to really say it. It's a, but that's been worrying me a lot. And technically, technically her business is essential. And I'm not necessarily disagreeing with that, but it's, I can't help but kind of think of it from the perspective of that. Okay. So my mom works at Verizon and she works at, at an authorized dealer called Victra Verizon. And so Verizon is obviously this really big company, right? But then you've got your authorized dealers, so you've, so you've got Russell cellular of cellular sales, Victra where my mom works. So Russell cellular has closed its doors, US cellular, it's closes doors or at least in some areas. And then the corporate store, even the corporate store down the road from my mom's work has also closed its doors for a while. They were only letting one person in at a time.

Keaton Wilson (20:19):

And then they got to a point where they just shut it down completely. So because of that, my mom's for us in stores, pretty much the only one open in the area. And so all of the business from the corporate store is going over to mom's store. And so it's, it's brought in a bunch more, a bunch more business, which has given my mom, you know, it's been helping her financially, but in terms of, of her health, it's definitely a big risk that, that she's having to take because she can't take time off. She can't not say no if she's on the schedule, you know what I mean? And so they, at first they, they, they were taking some really good precautions. Like they were only letting people in like they, they were only allowing 10 people in the store at a time, including the employees. And so that went on for a while and then Verizon sent them like gloves to wear. So when they're working with phones, cause you'd be surprised at how dirty phones actually are?

Sally Hendrick (21:33):

Oh no. I know we have we have one of those de-ionization type things called the phone soap and it's a box that you open and you put your phone in it and you keep it closed in there for 10 minutes and it kills all the germs.

Keaton Wilson (21:48):

I actually need to get one of those. I actually may look that up. Thank you for telling me about.

Sally Hendrick (21:54):

We all line up our phones at night. It's like, no, mine's next. Mine's next.

Keaton Wilson (22:00):

Everyone needs that for sure. Absolutely. but,

Sally Hendrick (22:05):

But she's handling the phones and

Keaton Wilson (22:07):

Yeah, with, yeah. Yeah. Like with her gloves and such. And then she also put like a line of tape around her desk to make sure that customer stay six feet away. And then they also were offering curbside help. So like if you need help with, so, so if you're not necessarily getting a new phone but you need help with something else, I can come out and come to your car and things like that. And then they shorten their hours. So instead of being open from 10 to seven, they're up and from wait. Yeah. Instead of being open from 10 to seven, they're open from 11 to six, but then all of a sudden they stopped the, I guess they ran out of gloves to send. So I don't know if my mom's been, you know, I don't know if they've gotten more.

Sally Hendrick (23:00):

So the concern, they say that the gloves really are just passing the germs from one thing to the next and that really you should be more like wear the mask or whatever, use your hands to do things, but then use the hand sanitizer or wash your hands before you touch the next thing. So that's probably where that's coming from and they're not sending the gloves. I'm going to make that assumption.

Keaton Wilson (23:26):

Gotcha. And that, and that, and that makes some sense too because for a long time I was just like, why? Like why are they even still open? You know what I mean? And I can't help but think that it's a, it's a money thing. And you would

Sally Hendrick (23:42):

Think that maybe they could handle a lot of this over the phone and the mail.

Keaton Wilson (23:46):

Yeah, I 110% agree. And the, the most frustrating part about it all Sally is, is the fact that our could be doing my part all day by quarantining and social distancing and being by myself. But my mom is having to work every single day and even going in on her days off because she's getting so busy because she's getting so much more business now, which is good. But, but she could be contacting the, like she, like she could be catching the virus and not even know it. And that's what's most scary. Right.

Sally Hendrick (24:25):

Well we'll hope that that's going to be a positive outcome there and then she won't get the virus or that nothing will happen. We'll just hope for that. So as far as anything else, what about with friends or other people you're seeing around? Are you getting out of the house at all or are you driving around or going to the, any of the stores when you need something?

Keaton Wilson (24:47):

I'm going to a Walmart to get groceries when I need to. And I have to go to the pharmacy every couple of weeks, but I'll go through the drive through, through the actual store. And I'll wear a mask everywhere I go. But really outside of Walmart, I don't really go anywhere else. One the other day I got so bored in this house, I was about to go insane. So I have, I don't, I don't have a very busy neighborhood at all, so I, so I've been going on runs, going on walks, you know, just to be outside and get some vitamin D, you know what I mean? And I also just went for a drive and I just drove to Medina, drove past my old high school, drove around the parking lot and did just to get out for a little bit and kind of, cause it's, for the most part, it's, it's felt really good outside. It got, it got really cold for a few days, but then now it's back up to 75. So right now it's sunny and 75, so I may go outside later today. And with it being, it's, it's staying lighter lately,

Sally Hendrick (26:01):

Longer, right. The daylight.

Keaton Wilson (26:03):

Yeah. That,

Sally Hendrick (26:04):

Yeah. So as far as like your friends are concerned, have you talked to them? What's going on there? What are they doing?

Keaton Wilson (26:11):

I've talked to them over FaceTime and over zoom and over the phone. And they're struggling and a lot of the same ways that I am. Understandably so. There a lot of, you know a lot of my friends are in different colleges within UTM, so some are majoring in biology, some were majoring in geology, majoring in veterinary science. And so some of their professors have actually doubled the workload for some of them. And I just really hate that. Yeah,

Sally Hendrick (26:48):

That's hard. That's not good because we've had the struggle with that, with our high school in that, not that they doubled the work at all, but that kids were having to suddenly deal with a different, they were dealing with all the transition, all the change, and then having to be online and not getting to see their friends, not getting to have that social time. And that creeps in this additional anxiety that makes people need a little more space and a little more time and room to develop into a new normal. And so they actually started backing off of what was going on with the, with the schoolwork in order to account for the fact that we all need a little bit of mental space and emotional space to adjust.

Keaton Wilson (27:36):

Right. And for the most part, I can say that as far as my experience goes, more than understanding about about what's going on and, and they've done a really good job of helping us adapt in the best way that they know how, because it's never happened to them either. So a big thing that I've been, I've been telling myself and reminding myself is to have grace for my professors because their job was already really hard, harder than I can ever imagine. So I just tried to be very understanding of their of, of how their new normal is, is, is shifting. But but I am hearing some stories here and there that, that it's seems like their workload is, is like being increased and things are getting harder for them. They're getting more assignments because it's online now.

Sally Hendrick (28:31):

Gotcha. Well, what about your hopes about this? Because, I mean, at the end of the day, you know, life has its ups and downs. We have all these things that we go through, but there's always a silver lining. There's always a lesson to be learned or some good to come out of it. So what, what are your hopes for what's to come from this?

Keaton Wilson (28:54):

I can't, I can't not say that. You know, I, I'll always think that God is at work. You know, even in the midst of so much uncertainty, so much chaos, so much chaos. You know, it's catastrophe word. Yes, it is catastrophe and so much catastrophe. I still think God is at work and I think that, you know, we ha we have no choice but to come together as a, as people and as citizens of, of not only the, the, the United States, because this is a global pandemic, right? So we all have to come together and put this United front up and do our part individually so that we can come out of this on the other side as a better world and as better people because of this. Because it's the, the fact is you can throw any theory out there that, that, that, that you want or that you believe in.

Keaton Wilson (30:05):

But the fact is, is that it is here in our world and I have to take the steps in order to mitigate this virus and to stop it and slow the spread as best as we can. And I know that what we feel like we can do feels very limited. But actually just by social distancing and taking this seriously and not calling it a hoax or labeling it as this or that, or, or, calling it an overreaction or whatever, like it's, it's, it's a big thing to just do our part by, by, by staying informed. And I think that's the best way for us to move forward. It starts with being informed and watching the news and keeping up with, with the CDC guidelines and what they're recommending for us to do this time. And so that's an I and I have a lot of faith because I really think that a lot of us are really, most of us are really taking this seriously.

Keaton Wilson (31:06):

And, and we're starting to see a little a little bit of a flattening the curve, right? Yeah. I think say and I, I, and, and, and, and like I said before, my biggest fear is businesses opening back up sooner than they should. I feel like some businesses may do that and then we'll start seeing a little bit of a spike again which makes it more possible for it to come back up in the fall. And I just, I, I would really hate, honestly, I, I would just really hate to see that for 2020.

Sally Hendrick (31:46):

And who knew that 2020 was going to be this. Isn't that crazy?

Keaton Wilson (31:52):

Yeah. And in January or December, January, we started seeing little bits and pieces like, like in other countries, you know, then, and then all of a sudden we just got a big rush in the United States. And then I was like, but the university's not going to close. Like, because I mean, we, we don't like, we don't even close for snow, you know what I mean? Like really, really like tons of snow. We don't even close for that. But then the moment it was, I'm serious, Sally, like the moment that I realized that this was a true possibility that the university could close, that's the moment it became our reality.

Sally Hendrick (32:35):

Yep. And that timing is different for everybody. The realization of what's happening is different for everybody and hopefully people will, you know, wake up to what's happening and, but we also need to understand that it's very important for the economy to continue as well. We've just got to adjust and adapt and then go back into this with a very metered measured response, which is what I believe that the government is trying to do now. And they had, there was a big press conference yesterday that I would love to direct to you for you to look at. So, and I'll be discussing more of that as we go along as I do more interviews with people and as I write more articles about this. So I'll love to get an update from you at some point on what's happening. So I've, we could wrap this up. Unless you've got something else to, to add to the conversation. Anything else you want to say?

Keaton Wilson (33:32):

I just think it's important now more than ever for us to really start paying attention to, to what's going on, on the news and what's going on in our world and, and, and realize that, you know, it's important for us to really pay it. It's just really important for us to pay attention and for us to come together during this time,

Sally Hendrick (34:01):

Give each other grace and space in the, in the process because it's not easy and everybody has a different opinion and, and all of that. But we've got to give each other grace and space and throughout.

Keaton Wilson (34:13):

Amen. And I really think that love, love, this is probably the biggest piece of the puzzle here. And by keeping our distance from one another, that's loving our neighbors well, and that's how we are going to move forward together as one body toward healing. And that's the only way we'll come out on top. That's the only way we'll fight and defeat this.

Sally Hendrick (34:38):

Well, thank you so much for talking with me today. It's been a pleasure.

Keaton Wilson (34:42):

It's always a pleasure talking to you, Sally. I hope you're staying safe and washing your hands and doing well. All right.

Sally Hendrick (34:51):

All right. Thank you.

Keaton Wilson (34:52):

You're welcome. Bye.

Sally Hendrick (35:02):

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