Graduation ceremonies are nostalgia-fuelled events like no other. The caps, the gowns, the official photographs and the quaint little traditions – they only come round once, and you can be sure students and their families alike will be determined to enjoy every moment.

It almost feels as if the three-year stint flashes by quicker than it takes for the graduate cap to fall back down to earth.

The exams, the all-nighters, the societies, the stress, and the fun. Graduation is one last chance for students to squeeze in a final experience before student life ends – and real life begins.

At least, that’s what graduation should be. But not this year. Covid-19 not only managed to wrest over a year’s worth of the proper university experience from students – it succeeded in cancelling two graduations as well.

Graduation without a ceremony is almost like winning a race without being able to celebrate crossing the finish line. Gowns and hats and flutes of champagne on a Zoom call just won’t feel the same.

Not that there’s anything universities can really do about this, of course. Despite the fact all students deserve to celebrate the culmination of their years’ worth of effort, there are some of graduates at the University of Essex whose achievements merit special recognition.

Sam Howlett, for example, is graduating from the university’s law school with an LLB, which she studied for while raising three young children under the age of ten.

She says she was inspired to be a voice of vulnerable and marginalised individuals, following her own experiences of domestic abuse.

Harwich and Manningtree Standard: Sam Howlett, graduating with an LLB

“After experiencing domestic abuse as a child and in my first marriage, I realised how difficult it was to navigate the justice system. I wanted the opportunity to help others in similar situations,” she said.

Miss Howlett, who is from Colchester, admitted although it was a struggle raising three children throughout lockdown while studying for a degree, it has allowed her to challenge herself in ways she never could have expected.

“Raising three children while completing a law degree during a pandemic has been no easy feat,” she said. “However, it has been such a wonderful time and given me so many opportunities to grow and learn.

“Going back to education as a mature student with three children was difficult. Students with caring responsibilities often face a host of challenges, mainly the difficulty with experiencing university life, finding friends, or being able to attend social events.

“I wanted to expand my network and create a support system that I felt was lacking for people like me,” Sam said.

Zoe Wager started her degree at the University of Essex after her initial plans to join the Army as a medic fell through.

But it is not only her BSc in physiotherapy that will set her in good stead for her career. Her final year saw her spend six weeks on placement in the Intensive Care Unit at Basildon Hospital, which no amount of teaching or studying could have prepared her for.

Harwich and Manningtree Standard: Zoe Wager, graduating with a BSc in Physiotherapy

“We had 27 patients on an ICU that was supposed to hold 14,” she recalls. “One week we lost 12 patients in three days. That was hard because although many of the patients are sedated you still become attached to them when you’re treating them daily. Seeing their family come to say goodbye is hard.”

Miss Wager had challenges of her own to deal with whilst she was studying for her degree, but credits the support of her teachers and lecturers who helped her through the times when she found it difficult to cope.

“The April before I began studying, I was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, depression and anxiety,” she said.

“I found being honest and open with my lecturers was best. They understood what was going on and how it would affect me and told me options I had if I was struggling.”

Read more >> University of Essex stops short of backing government plans to demand students are vaccinated

Charlotte Gowers is graduating with a BSc in sport and exercise science after successfully managing to balance triathlon training while studying for her degree.

Harwich and Manningtree Standard: Charlotte Gowers, graduating with a BSc in Sport and Exercise Science

Not only did she train several times a week to participate in the sport at a competitive level, she also volunteered as a triathlon coach, and won the Triathlon England Volunteer of the Year award.

Her plans to set up a triathlon team at the University of Essex were scuppered by the coronavirus pandemic last spring, but she still has plans to move the initiative forward while she stays on at the university to complete her master’s degree into 2022.

Longer term, Miss Gowers has plans to pursue a career supporting elite athletes, and already has work experience at the Human Performance Unit at the university via the Frontrunners Plus placement.

“Don’t be shy, make the most of talking to new people and just have fun”, is her advice to future students.

She added: “Make the most of networking and making connections that can lead to you getting a job at the end of your degree.”

Although Sophie Kabangu had enrolled at the University of Essex to study communications and digital culture, an optional first-year module on human rights completely changed the course of her degree, and she is now graduating with a BA in sociology and human rights.

Harwich and Manningtree Standard: Sophie Kabangu, graduating with a BA in Sociology and Human Rights

While at the university, she joined the Amnesty Rise Up, a programme for young people interested in achieving social change. She soon started putting her skills into practice, organising Colchester’s first Black Lives Matter protest in the summer of 2020.

“We are commonly made to believe that in the UK racism does not exist,” she said.

“I hope the Black Lives Matter movement educates people and allows people to acknowledge that not only does change need to happen, but the whole system must be demolished. We need to start again.”

In January 2021 she was listed in the Big Issue Changemakers, and in March was recognised by Marie Claire magazine as one of its Gen Z activists transforming the world.