This article is the first in the four-part series "An Unexpected Commencement: The Class of 2021 Looks Back, and Forward"
Before the University made any announcement about moving to remote learning last spring, staff in the Office of Residential Life were making contingency plans. Tracy Mansour and Nick Greene, leaders in ResLife, wanted to know how many boxes it would take for students to quickly leave their residence halls, should the rapidly spreading coronavirus make such a move necessary. The answer, they determined, was 6,000.
“Tracy called one of our colleagues, Steven Lewis, and asked him two questions without any context: would it be possible for us to get 6,000 boxes delivered to the residence halls, and if so, how soon?” Greene, who is the associate director of residential operations and communications, wrote in an email to The Herald. Lewis is the Facilities and Housing Manager for ResLife.
After speaking with Mansour, the director of residential operations, Lewis called between 10 and 15 box companies in the area. The day after Mansour’s call with Lewis — March 12, 2020 — President Christina Paxson P’19 announced the transition to remote learning. A few hours later, thousands of boxes began to be delivered to residence halls.
Some things fit neatly within the cardboard confines of those moving boxes: clothing, bedding, box fans, wall decor. As the evacuation progressed, however, it was also apparent that there was much that students could not take with them. The Class Coordinating Board had already sold tickets to its annual Gala, which was scheduled for the upcoming weekend. Members of the board took shifts handing out refunds in the Stephen Robert ’62 Campus Center. Student-run theater organization Production Workshop was in the middle of preparing a show that would never premiere, though its marquee is still up in front of T.F. Green Hall, and a member of the PW board noted that, more than a year later, its set remains undisturbed in the building’s Downspace.
In the months since March 2020, the pandemic has had disparate effects around the world and within the Brown community. On top of varied individual and collective losses, members of the senior class know that they will not receive a normal sendoff from the University or be able to return to some of the activities that characterized life on campus before the pandemic. These missed and muted moments, while small relative to the profound toll of COVID-19, have shaped the shared senior year of the class of 2021. Though many students told The Herald that they are sad to be leaving Brown in such an unusual way, most also expressed gratitude for the friendships, learning and new experiences that have accompanied their four years at Brown.
“This graduating class as a whole, just from my own experience, has missed quite a bit of just everything because of the pandemic,” said Hans Lei ’21. Still, Lei noted his appreciation for the two months he spent abroad before the pandemic sent him away, and for the connections and friendships he plans to maintain well after graduation. “Despite everything that has happened, I think these are things that I'm personally thankful for and grateful for.”
Lei is the captain of the Brown Ballroom Dance Team, a role he assumed after spending his junior year with the Brown in Washington program then abroad in the United Kingdom in spring 2020.
“It was definitely a little weird — sort of coming back to Brown, but also sort of not really coming back in that I wasn't actually allowed to do anything normal on campus,” Lei said.
This year, the ballroom team has held classes with its coaches on Zoom, though partner dancing and competitions remain impossible, and it can be challenging for students with little open space to participate.
“I am a little bit disappointed that I'm not going to have the experience I had during my sophomore year when I first joined the team,” Lei said. “But the good thing about ballroom is it's an activity that you can continue with to a large extent after graduating.”
PW has also moved some activities to the virtual environment. Comparing PW before the pandemic to the organization’s Zoom iteration is “almost like comparing apples and oranges,” said Bella Cavicchi ’21, a member of the PW board. “It's not exactly the same, but they have their own merits.”
For instance, moving away from a physical space led Cavicchi to ask, “What is PW outside of T.F. Green?” — the building that served as the hub for their activity.
“It really feels like … family for me, honestly,” Cavicchi said. “Being with the board and just having a weekly Zoom call and … I don't know, just sharing time with each other is its own space.”
The loss of structure has pushed PW to make some long-discussed changes, such as creating a mission statement.
“Instead of producing art, we were talking about the kind of art we wanted to produce,” said Maaike Laanstra-Corn ’21, another board member.
Laanstra-Corn noted the strangeness of marking time since she last participated in certain activities.
“It is a really weird thing to be like, ‘The last time I produced a show was over a year ago, the last time I acted in something was over a year ago, the last time Bella and I sent an email to a cast was over a year ago,’” Laanstra-Corn said. “It's both the big and the small, I think, all wrapped in one.”
Cavicchi and Laanstra-Corn both plan to pursue theater after graduation, and they acknowledged the difficulty of losing a year of normal theater at Brown.
“Not having the opportunity to practice the craft of theater and producing and acting on campus in addition to the loss of physical community has been a really hard blow for me, and I think countless others,” Laanstra-Corn said. But she added that because everyone feels behind, "we're all really in it together."
Members of other student groups described a similar sense of loss in the absence of in-person activities, and acknowledged the limitations of Zoom. Meta Austin ’21 has served as a board member in the Brown Outing Club since her sophomore fall. The BOC has not been permitted to hold in-person activities this year, Austin said, adding that the club’s Gear Room has been closed due to the pandemic, so students cannot rent equipment.
“The warm weather definitely makes me miss all of the activities I'd be doing,” Austin said. In a normal year, the BOC would be running rafting outings, other water trips and “Brown Get Outside!” — a series of events planned for Earth Day. With board members fatigued from other Zoom calls and without events to plan, Austin said attendance is lower at weekly board meetings.
“I wish I got to lead another trip,” said Austin, who, like Lei, was studying abroad last spring. “I'd say it's the thing I'm the saddest about not getting to do. I'd rather have a Brown GO! weekend and run a couple big trips than get my walk across the stage or my last Spring Weekend or any of that.”
When Commencement does take place in early May, seniors who are in Providence will walk through the Van Wickle Gates. Beyond this procession, the event will differ significantly from the University’s typical festivities, and students will not have the same opportunities to say goodbye.
“I feel like I am very much a positive person and so I feel so bleak saying this, but I am just sad. I feel like I’m going to graduate and be a little sad that this is the way Brown is ending,” Cavicchi said. “I understand I am so privileged to have this opportunity still, and I don't want to discount anything or do this comparison at all, it's just ... I was dreaming of a different year. I don't know what to make of that, necessarily.”
While Laanstra-Corn said she feels ready to leave Brown, she misses what was before the pandemic and what could have been.
“Talking about it with friends makes it easier, (as does) focusing on the little things that make a day really good, like a great professor, or a really good dinner you make with your friends, or a weekly PW board meeting where we maybe don't talk about anything but we see each other on Zoom,” Laanstra-Corn said. “Because there's so little else, those things carry so much weight.”
For Cavicchi and Laanstra-Corn, conversations with each other and Finch Collins ’21, another senior on PW, have helped them cope this year.
“It's a sadness that's shared, and somehow I find comfort in that,” Cavicchi said.
“It's a shared grief and yet we're still finding ways to hold what's most important, which I think is each other.”
Cynthia Bo Huen Ng ‘21 has found that conversations with her family, with whom she spent more time while living in Hong Kong from May 2020 through January 2021, have provided helpful perspective.
“When they look back on college, they tell me about what they value in college, which is friendships, the connections, the people you meet,” Ng said. “Senior year to me has been about the consolidation of friendships, and in a way I think COVID has really forced us to consolidate friendships.”
Focusing on gratitude has also been important for Ng. Since last summer, Ng has started meditating more and focused on inward reflection.
“I thankfully really have been able to meditate more (and) intentionally take time out of my day to do that, and again that is I think a privilege as students who are perhaps not working and have more time,” Ng said. “With that intentionality comes, thankfully, the ability to be able to be grateful.”
Lei, too, said it is important to think about the past year in context.
“We are definitely in a pretty privileged position of being able to go to Brown University and ... most of us being able to travel across the country and be able to at least physically be in Providence,” Lei said. “Appreciating how others have been affected by all of this,” through volunteering or staying informed, “ I think is also something that we also have to do,” he added.
Thinking about what you can do for someone else can be a useful way to cope with negative feelings, according to Senior Associate Dean and Director of Student Support Services Timothy Shiner. Student Support Services often works as a “sounding board,” helping students identify resources and providing assistance on a non-clinical level, Shiner said.
“It’s sort of counterintuitive and certainly you have to have balance, you have to take time for yourself and reflect on things,” Shiner said. “Ironically, one of the things that can make you feel better is to turn to someone else and acknowledge that this hasn't impacted us all in the same way.”
Shiner also encouraged perspective, noting that most students still have many milestone moments ahead of them, though he said that having perspective would have also been difficult for him as a 22-year-old.
“To feel a loss now is real, but to try to keep it in perspective is, I think, a good thing,” Shiner said. “Reflecting on the things that we can be grateful for I think can be a really powerful exercise as well.”
In March 2020, Reverend Janet Cooper Nelson, the Chaplain of the University, wrote an op-ed in The Herald encouraging the Brown community to turn to the University’s “Alma Mater" amidst the loss of COVID-19. She has seen quite a few classes of Brown seniors graduate, but expressed steadfast faith in the class of 2021, despite and because of the pandemic.
“If I trust a single class in my whole 31 years at Brown to do it right, it's your class,” she said. “I really, really think your leadership of the other undergraduates and your ability to keep your focus on your work and on your friendships in the face of this is a part of how we're all going to heal.”
Asked to reflect on how seniors might maintain their connections to the Brown community, in the context of her column, Cooper Nelson returned to the Alma Mater. Though the song is “almost unsingable,” Cooper Nelson points to one line in particular, which references “sorrows as transient as April’s brief showers.”
“I hope in time the transience of these sorrows will be more apparent than being dominant in your experience,” Cooper Nelson said. “The song of Brown — however you would think of that — is kind of going with you.”
— Melanie Pincus '21 has written an article in all four Commencement Magazines throughout her time at Brown.
This article is the first in the four-part series "An Unexpected Commencement: The Class of 2021 Looks Back, and Forward"