Elissa DeFranceschi, Drexel University Class of 2020, with her boyfriend in Philadelphia. Hannah Beier

They call it commencement because it’s supposed to be a new beginning.

College graduation is one of life’s last clean transitions, a final passage from adolescence to adulthood that is predictable in ways other transitions rarely are. Relationships end with breakups or death, jobs often end with quitting or firing, but college is one of the only things in life that ends with a fresh start. Except when it doesn’t.

One morning in March, Clavey Robertson took a study break and climbed onto the roof of his dorm at the University of California, Berkeley. He had spent the past year working on his senior thesis on the erosion of the social-safety net since the Great Depression, and he needed to clear his head. In the distance, Robertson could see a tiny white speck: the Diamond Princess cruise ship, carrying crew members infected with COVID-19, lingering in the San Francisco Bay.

Two months later, Robertson’s transition to adulthood is in limbo. He skipped his online commencement and he’s living in his childhood bedroom, which had been converted to a guest room. His parents have lost their travel agency work, and his own job prospects have dried up. “No longer am I just a student writing about the Great Depression,” he says. “Now there’s a depression.”

College graduation is often marked by an adjustment period, as students leave the comforts of campus to find their way in the raw wilderness of the job market. But this year’s graduates are staggering into a world that is in some ways unrecognizable. More than 90,000 Americans have died; tens of millions are out of work; entire industries have crumbled. The virus and the economic shock waves it unleashed have hammered Americans of all ages. But graduating in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic will have enduring implications on the Class of 2020: for their memories, their earning power, and their view of what it means to have a functional society. For these young adults, the pandemic represents not just a national crisis but also a defining moment.

Even before COVID-19, the Class of 2020 came of age at a time of fear and uncertainty. Born largely in 1997 and 1998—among the oldest of Gen Z—the Class of 2020 were in day care and pre-kindergarten on 9/11. Their childhoods have been punctuated by school shootings and catastrophic climate change. Their freshman year at college began with President Donald Trump’s election; their senior year ended with a paralyzing global health crisis. “We stepped into the world as it was starting to fall apart,” says Simone Williams, who graduated from Florida A&M University in an online commencement May 9. “It’s caused my generation to have a vastly different perspective than the people just a few years ahead of us or behind us.”

Researchers have found that the major events voters experience in early adulthood—roughly between the ages of 14 and 24—tend to define their political attitudes for the rest of their lives. And the Class of 2020’s generation was already disaffected. Only 8% of Americans between 18 and 29 believe the government is working as it should be, and fewer than 1 in 5 consider themselves “very patriotic,” according to the 2020 Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics survey of young Americans. They are at once widely skeptical of U.S. institutions and insistent on more government solutions; they’re disappointed in the current system, but hold out hope for a better one.

For the Class of 2020, COVID-19’s lasting impact may be determined by what happens next. If the rising cohort of young workers are left to fend for themselves, mass youth unemployment could lead to permanent disillusionment or widespread despair. A forceful, effective response that invests in the rising generation of American talent could restore their faith in the system.

It’s not clear to the Class of 2020 how the pandemic will play out. They just know it will change their lives. “Everything” is at stake, says Yale history major Adrian Rivera. “It’s this pivotal moment where we’ll never forget what’s done,” he says. “Or what isn’t done.”

School is often a refuge from the gusts of history. But the events that rupture the classroom routine, from President Kennedy’s assassination to 9/11, tend to be the ones that stick with students forever.

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SOURCE: TIME, Charlotte Alter