This piece was originally submitted as a speech for the Class of 2021’s Commencement.
Before last March, I had never seen someone open a trash can with their elbows.
For whatever reason, that is the detail I visualize when I recall my first impression of what would soon explode into the COVID-19 pandemic: this person I recognized, but barely knew, standing by the Blue Room steps, contorting his body in order to keep his hands germ-free.
I think this moment stands out to me because of the quiet foreboding of such a simple action, when everything else still looked so normal. We all have different small details that we turn back to, but I think many of us remember the packed Main Green that week, where we were all soaking up this absurdly innocent sunshine. Actually evacuating campus was, briefly, beyond imagination.
We also each have our own frenetic story of what happened next. For me, that meant scrambling to make it back to the United Kingdom before the borders closed; for others, it meant scrambling to return from studying abroad, or even accepting that going home was not an option at all. But we all remember packing boxes, and we all remember having to say goodbyes we weren’t ready for.
And on my flight home, I remember the sunlight – this time at sunset, out the airplane window, tinging the clouds pink.
I took pictures of those clouds, and if I scroll back in my phone, those photos from an airplane in March 2020 form a clear division between a before and an after in college. Before, there are happy crowds crushed together, breathing the same air in Jo’s, at the GCB. After, distance mattered. Distance from the people we want to be closest to – in yards and meters, necessary on a walk or in a park or in the grocery store line. In miles and kilometers, measuring how far you are from a part of home, whether a place or a person.
I made it home in March. But once I did, it wasn’t long before I was aching to be back, anxiously checking when I would be able to return. In some ways, Brown feels more like home than anywhere I’ve ever been, and I know I’m not alone in feeling that way. There’s also a before and after for me marked by coming to Brown that I can’t distill into photos on a phone screen. Before Brown, I didn’t trust my own judgement. I felt like I didn’t fit in anywhere, even with my high school friends. I was hungry to belong somewhere.
And when I was lucky enough to join this community, I finally got to feel like I did. I had scoffed to myself at the idea of forced socialization at freshman orientation, yet it’s where I met two of my best friends. And I will never forget how friends from freshman year were thoughtful enough during the pandemic to make sure everyone, whether on campus or studying remotely, signed a card for each person’s birthday – how people printed messages from remote students out and stuck them on the colorful cards.
COVID-19 took too much away. Yet some small moments from the pandemic could unexpectedly become beautiful. Wearing a mask my mom painstakingly made, even though she loathes sewing. Turning biweekly covid tests from a necessity into a pleasure with good company.
I will remember that we got these consistent tests at least twice a week, a level most people in this country – in the world – did not. I think as we leave here, while we did not have a typical experience of college, let alone a typical senior year, we have an incredible amount to pay forward wherever we all end up – whether by working to heal political divisions, fighting for the rights of other people, or making a quiet difference in the small kindnesses we can show those we love each day. The kindnesses I have already experienced here, from friends offering support and strength in moments of self-doubt, loneliness, exhaustion, failure, are what I will remember more than any assignment or class.
College is often sold to us as the best four years of our lives. But as important as these four years have been, I never wanted them to be the best.
College is often sold to us as the best four years of our lives. But as important as these four years have been, I never wanted them to be the best. I like to believe what my dad says (not always true, but in this instance, yes): that life genuinely gets better after college, and that your thirties and forties and even fifties are times to look forward to – when you somehow learn to become more comfortable in your own adult skin. I like to think that the painful moments we have lived through at Brown, however senseless or undeserved, are preparing us for future happiness.
Still, when we are long gone from here, I will remember the flowers I saw on the walk back from those covid tests. First in summer bloom, then surrounded by autumn leaves, then snowed over, and now, cautiously emerging again. And mostly, I will remember that I never would have noticed those flowers if I had been walking alone.