Toi Ohomai graduates Anu Sharma and Pauline Tokailagi can't quite believe they "made it through" their early childhood diplomas after a tough year of Covid-19 disruptions.
The pair are among the hundreds of students who graduated at the Trustpower Arena in Tauranga this week.
Tokailagi, 22, said learning online was the hardest part of completing her studies in 2020.
"It was tough studying online; some of us prefer face-to-face learning. I am very proud. Getting through the year was very hard and challenging."
Sharma, 20, added: "Lockdown affected our study, but finally we made it through. It has been up and down, like a roller-coaster ride."
Additional support from Toi Ohomai took some of the pressure off during lockdown, she said.
"Toi Ohomai was really supportive - we had learning facilitators who helped us with assessments and everything.
"And finally, we made it through."
Before the ceremony, Sharma said she was feeling a mix of "hyper and nervous" about walking across the stage to receive her certificate.
She planned to celebrate by heading home for a nap after the ceremony.
"I have to study for this year, I have assignments due."
Both Tokailagi and Sharma were working towards completing their bachelor of teaching in early childhood education. They saw themselves teaching children under 5 in the future.
Toi Ohomai early childhood lecturer Keiko Whitley said she was extremely proud of the early childhood diploma graduates.
"I am so pleased to see them graduate, especially after lockdown. Some of them really struggled.
"They chose to learn face to face, but we were forced into online learning. That really wasn't for them."
She said this group of graduates "absolutely" gave her hope for the future of early childhood education in the Bay of Plenty.
Toi Ohomai head of marketing, events and communications Jessica Barnett said their students had to change from in-person classes to online learning environments within a "very short period of time" when the country went into lockdown.
"We are incredibly proud of those students that were affected by the lockdown who have graduated, even with the challenges that they faced throughout the pandemic.
"Some were separated from their whānau during this time – making it even more challenging."
Graduates who missed out on their ceremonies last year were also invited to attend alongside the 2021 graduates, Barnett said.
"It has also been great to celebrate those graduates who missed out on their ceremonies last year. We couldn't be more proud of everyone's achievements."
Toi Ohomai has hosted 12 ceremonies in eight days and six locations across the Bay of Plenty, celebrating more than 5000 graduates.