UGA’s COVID freshmen prepare to graduate

They came to UGA during COVID; it shaped them for the better
uhusuru Ranasinghe left, Anthony Tringali, right, and Lauryn Sanders, center, pose for a portrait in under and artchway in the UGA Business Learning Community.

Four years ago, the University of Georgia’s class of 2024 came to Athens to live in sequestered dorm rooms, eat from dining hall take-out boxes, and attend their first college courses over Zoom.

It was — without a doubt — a strange way to launch into the world. But as they prepare to graduate on May 10, this year’s class is thinking about how the COVID-19 pandemic shaped their attitudes toward work, community, and what they want out of life.

For Buhusuru Ranasinghe, who graduates with a degree in finance and a certificate in personal and organizational leadership, the pandemic and his first year at UGA were lessons in perseverance.

Growing up in Sri Lanka and attending high school in India, he knew he wanted to attend college in the United States. However, in the spring of 2020, when final exams were canceled and everyone was sent home, there was so much uncertainty. He decided to attend UGA without visiting the campus. His parents were supportive and proud but worried.

Ranasinghe stayed the course but had to attend his first semester of classes online from his family’s home in Sri Lanka. The reception from his advisors, professors and fellow students reassured him that UGA was the right choice.

“I had my orientation online at three in the morning because we were 10 and a half hours ahead of Athens,” he said. “And then I was a full-time student taking classes online from Sri Lanka. So that was an interesting experience. I had to become nocturnal because all my classes were in the middle of the night. But at the same time, I really got into the Atlas Business Society, and I was able to rush the Delta Sigma Pi business fraternity online. So before I stepped foot in the U.S., I had already gotten involved with the Terry community.”

By the end of the fall, he received his student visa and made it to Athens in time to take his spring semester classes in person. He took a job at Panda Express and remembers the day late in spring 2021 when they finally took their masks off and he saw his co-workers’ faces for the first time.

Buhusuru Ranasinghe stands in front a stone UGA sign in a mask and winter hat.
Buhusuru Ranasinghe had to start is freshman year online because of travel restrictions. He first arrived in Athens in early January in time to take spring classes.

“By my freshman summer, things were getting back to normal,” he said. “I still have videos of the first day of the fall semester of my sophomore year when I came to Terry, and everyone was in Casey Commons. I always heard about what the space was but I had never seen Casey Commons in all of its glory. So it was an interesting experience.”

After Ranasinghe’s family comes to watch him graduate this spring, he’ll move to New York City to take a summer analyst position with Canaccord Genuity. He’s excited but not nervous at this point.

“I don’t think I would wish for anyone else to have to start their college experience in the middle of the pandemic,” he said. “I think it’s unique to the class of 2024, but it helped me get to know myself more and what I’m capable of. And now, venturing out to the unknown is not that hard. I don’t know if I’m going stay in the U.S. long term, but if someone tells me to move to Singapore tomorrow, I’ll be like, ‘OK, let’s go.”

Lauryn Sanders, who graduates with a degree in marketing this May before moving to Ohio to work for Nestlé, said coming to UGA during COVID made her bolder and more confident.

When she arrived at Brumby Hall in fall 2020, UGA was nothing like the college experience that she had prepared for. Sanders visited campus and the Terry College early in high school as part of Terry’s Accelerated Business Program and through UGA’s Georgia Daze Recruitment Weekend.

She was ready. She knew upperclassmen. She had faculty mentors picked out. But when she got here, it was just Lauryn and a roommate she knew from middle school, spending almost all their time in a dorm room attending Zoom classes.

In retrospect, the forced downtime had done two things for her. The first, she said, was spending more time on her classes to ease the transition from high school to college academics. The second is the sense of lost time she and many young people felt during the pandemic, which made her much more outgoing once her classes and social activities started returning to normal.

“I was excited to have more in-person interaction,” Sanders said. “For example, I had been in the student government association; I was a first-year senator. We were meeting virtually the entire first semester. So second semester, I was excited to be around people in real life — to connect. I think that did push me to be a little bit more extroverted and get to know people … I was more willing to put myself out there than I would have been in a normal school year.”

Sanders went on to serve as a Terry Ambassador and EY Diversity Fellow, became heavily involved with the Terry Women’s Initiative and was selected for the Sea Island Scholar mentorship program.  

“I’m definitely excited to walk this year because I didn’t have a normal graduation the first time,” she said. “Just knowing what to expect and what to be excited for is a big deal. My parents are excited, and my family’s coming in from out of town … But also I’m excited about being able to celebrate my friends graduating and moving to new cities for jobs and making plans to visit each other. 

“We didn’t get that the last time. We just left school in March and didn’t have that senior-year closure.”

For Anthony Tringali, who graduates with degrees in economics and political science and a certificate in analytics in public policy, watching the world react to COVID gave him the confidence he could have an impact on the world around him.

He was struck by how average people from across the political spectrum became more vocal during the pandemic. He also saw the way local governments impacted their constituents’ lives.

“COVID did open my eyes to the fact that regular people are the ones voicing their opinions and making these decisions,” Tringali said. “And nothing is separating me from these people besides the fact they took the chance to voice their concerns and talk about what they think is a better solution. I realized they don’t have exclusive knowledge or access to some club I don’t have.”

It led to merging his interest in public policy and economics and to a job as a research analyst at UGA’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government, which conducts public policy research to inform state and local decision-makers. His focus was on workforce development, but he also studied the impact of small business credit and eviction prevention policies during an internship at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.

After graduation, which will be his first in-person ceremony, he will join the Federal Reserve Bank in Richmond, Va.

“I’m excited to graduate,” Tringali said. “It felt like time moved so slowly at the beginning of the pandemic. It felt like I was never going to graduate high school; it felt like an eternity.  And here I am now, wishing things would slow down and we could pump the brakes. But it feels great. I’m looking forward to the next chapter of my life.”