In any other year, NI's final year students would now have been waiting for their exam results and looking forward to walking across a stage to accept that precious scroll as proud parents look on. Linda Stewart talks to the class of Covid-19
It's a key rite of passage and a reward for years of hard study and graft - the formal robes, the speeches, the strawberries and the photographs with proud parents on graduation day.
But for the Class of Covid-19, that last push to sit their final exams and crown years of hard work with a day of celebrations has all ended in a bit of a whimper as graduation ceremonies have been mothballed.
Final year Queen's University Belfast medical student Patrick Lynch (26) found himself drafted into the world of work earlier than expected after his nine-week hospital placement was cancelled just three weeks after it had begun.
The north Belfast student completed finals in February for his five-year medical degree and had just started his 'F0', a nine-week assistantship to give graduating students experience before starting new roles as junior doctors in August.
While working in Belfast City Hospital new measures were introduced involving social distancing and use of PPE, and then the placement was cancelled after three weeks.
"That was when we realised something big was going to happen and it would change how the next couple of months would work out," he says. "We were immediately taken off the wards, mainly because doctors were realising there was going to be a huge burden on them and they couldn't properly supervise us."
The medical students went into lockdown while they awaited further instructions and had a virtual graduation in a Zoom meeting with a special video message from Hillary Clinton.
Soon afterwards, the students were drafted in to support the NHS while more experienced staff were reallocated to the frontline.
Patrick has now started working full-time at the Royal Victoria Hospital's Stroke Unit as a fully fledged junior doctor.
"We're now part of that cohort of doctors who have started early and that has given us the experience that we missed," he says.
"It would be surreal, regardless of the pandemic, that I've actually formally become a doctor. It's quite unbelievable and something I'll look back on and just think how did I get through it?"
He isn't dealing with Covid patients, but the pandemic changes things in the unit - patients are reluctant to stay in hospital, but stroke patients often need a longer stay. It can also be difficult to communicate with stroke patients through the mask, he says.
"It's just adapting to circumstances which is what medicine is all about," he says.
His graduation has been postponed rather than cancelled, but Patrick admits the end of his final year has been a bit of anti-climax, with fellow students scattering to new postings without being able to say goodbye.
"I missed my first graduation because I was in Camp America and my mum has spent the last few years saying 'Don't worry, you'll get your graduation for medicine'. She is more annoyed than I am!"
But Patrick and his housemates didn't let their graduation go unmarked - they had a little party in the house, made a graduation robe out of a bedsheet and took photos of each other outside the Lanyon Building.
"We literally cut up a bed sheet and a T-shirt for the ribbons, and my friend made a graduation cap out of a cereal box. If medicine doesn't work out, I could be a seamstress," he laughs.
Jamie Kennedy (21) was due to graduate in politics from the Ulster University at Jordanstown at the start of July, but has now been in lockdown with his factory worker dad Andrew, hairdresser mum Amanda and brother Adam in Killyleagh, Co Down, for more than 12 weeks.
"Even the lecturers didn't know what to do - they had never faced anything like this before," he says, reflecting on the abrupt end to life on campus.
Because much of the work had been delivered through modules, Jamie only had one exam left to sit and it was replaced with an online assignment.
"The last piece of work we had to do was the dissertation which was due last month. I got it submitted a couple of weeks before the deadline, as I'd been at home for weeks and had time to sit and do it. I'm just waiting on the dissertation mark coming back now," he says.
"The staff at university and the lecturers have been brilliant the whole way through this, dealing with stuff they've never had to deal with before and completely switching the way they teach to online and recorded lectures. They have been very, very helpful."
Jamie can vividly recall going into college the week before lockdown. He had no idea that he wouldn't be back at the university again.
"It was a normal day - and then that was it. What a weird way to end it. It was a bit of an anticlimax after three years," he says.
The students have been told only that graduations have been cancelled and the university is considering options.
"Some people have suggested there may be virtual ones or that they will be held in November or December. But I still don't know if they are going to happen - it's not set in stone. It's strange -it's sort of like it's over," Jamie says.
"It wasn't that I was sitting thinking 'I can't wait for my graduation day', but it was just something I thought would be a good day.
"I'm not totally devastated about it, but I am still missing out and it's sad. However, everything else going on puts it into perspective."
Jamie hadn't any firm plans for life after graduating.
He'd been weighing up whether to take a break from studying and finding a job for a year before deciding whether or not to embark on a Masters degree.
Now, if anything, the pandemic has left him feeling at even more of a loss about his future.
"I don't know what I am going to do now - I don't know if everything will be lifted completely or if there will be a second wave of this virus and whether I can go and work," he says.
"It's all really up in the air. I am just waiting to see what happens.
"I'd love to do a bit of work and take it from there, but I can't even do that at the moment.
"Everything has stalled completely."
Ellie McGuinness has had a traumatic final year to her degree in psychology at the Ulster University at Coleraine. At the start of it, the 22-year-old from Irvinestown in Co Fermanagh suffered heartbreak when her father Brendan died from a stroke.
She had been hoping that her graduation day would be a big family celebration, when they could all reflect on how delighted her dad would have been of his daughter's achievement.
"It would have been bittersweet because he wasn't going to be there and he would have been so proud," says Ellie.
"The whole family were looking forward to my graduation day so they could celebrate. It would have been such a thing for dad, who had made it so clear of how proud he was of me and the work I was doing," she says.
"It's been a tough year for me but I've worked my way through it as he would have wanted, and now it's just kind of finished and we're not getting the celebration that we're all yearning for.
"No matter what they would pull out of the bag now, it wouldn't live up to expectations. But that's the way the cards have been dealt - we are the class of Covid-19."
Ellie was class rep and in early March, when numbers in Northern Ireland were in single figures, students were beginning to ask questions about what would happen if lockdown was introduced.
"We had a meeting a week before the lockdown with a panel working on what it would mean - and then it just happened.
"The staff and the students' union were great - if you had questions they tried to answer them as soon as they could," she says.
Ellie decided to stay in Portstewart and continue with her job at Asda, while working on her dissertation, as she was concerned about passing anything on to her mum Sheena, who has degenerative disc disease.
She says the university provided extensions for anyone who asked for one and the exams were put online, with students given nine days to submit their work. It meant that while some students took the full nine days, others finished earlier.
"Instead of a last exam where we all leave together and go straight to the pub, it was staggered. It didn't feel as final as your final finals would feel, although in retrospect I was probably the calmest I've ever felt in any exam," Ellie says.
Graduations were due to be held in early July but have now been cancelled and degrees will be posted out in August.
Ellie says the university is still hoping to host a formal celebration at some point, but it will be difficult to have people congregating in such numbers.
"They're also looking at something they can do now, like a virtual graduation - it will be a celebration at least. But you work so hard for four years and you look forward to the cap and gown and the nice dress and getting your whole family together," she adds.
Ellie had hoped to move to Dublin after graduation and work with the Simon Community homeless charity where she did her placement, but she says that few companies are hiring at the moment.
Instead, she is continuing to work in Asda - she has now switched to their Omagh - and has moved home where she is careful to socially distance from her mum and sister.
"We know lockdown restrictions are easing faster than originally set out, but it could be next week or it could be September or October," she says.
"If the hotels are open again, there will be homeless people on the street and I'd like to help them."
Lucy Brown (22), a final year law student at Queen's University Belfast, had heard rumours that former first lady Hillary Clinton would be the guest of honour at her graduation on July 7 - but the students have now been told they will have a virtual graduation with a celebratory event.
The students attended their Law Ball in early February, but within weeks rumours were circulating about the pandemic, the south Belfast student says.
Lucy went into lockdown earlier than the rest of her friends because her dad was in a high risk group.
"I stopped going to the library the week before St Patrick's Day because my mum was worried about it," she says. "After St Patrick's Day the classes were just put online. Ultimately the exams were put online - one of the core modules was meant to be a three-hour exam in a hall but it ended up being put online."
Like Jamie, Lucy, who has three older sisters Fiona, Claire and Alison, has found the whole experience rather underwhelming. She'd been looking forward to walking out of the exam room after her final exam and then enjoying the customary celebrations in a local bar with her friends.
"In the past two years, we would have gone to the Student Union or the Parlour Bar after our exams and it doesn't feel the same now," she says. "Having a sip of the can didn't really taste the same when it was in my living room though it was good all the same," she says.
Queen's has reassured students that the virtual graduation is just a way to get their degree classification and they will get a celebration event where they can wear their robes.
"We don't know when it will be," says Lucy. "Obviously it can only take place when it's sensible to do so, but hopefully it will be in the not too distant future."
For Lucy, too, life is now on hold. She had been considering going travelling this summer with friends, a last burst of freedom before applying for jobs, but is grateful that she hadn't booked anything.
"Obviously, it was not really the way that we wanted to end university but there is all so much worse going on in the world - look at the work that doctors and nurses have been doing," she says.
"We've a good group of friends and we know we will celebrate when the time is right. It's just not the right time now."