This article is the fourth in the four-part series "An Unexpected Commencement: The Class of 2021 Looks Back, and Forward."
The class of 2021 spent its entire last year at Brown under COVID-19 restrictions: last memories made socializing in pods of no more than five people; senior seminars held in large lecture halls masked up or over Zoom; first jobs to start from childhood bedrooms, remotely.
For many seniors, the COVID-19 pandemic changed the shape of their college experience, and for all, it has reshaped the world they will enter after they graduate.
The Herald spoke with six members of the class of 2021 to talk about their unusual last year on College Hill and what their plans are for a life after Brown and at the tail end of a pandemic.
Reflecting on a changed senior year
Reet Agrawal ’21.5 decided to take leave in the fall and feels that many of her friendships have been affected by COVID-19. She says her friend group this year has largely been shaped by the people she has been living with and those that made an effort to stay in touch with her when she was back home in India while on leave last semester.
The year overall has been a time of reflection for Nidhi Bhaskar ’21. “It’s really given me a good look at how resilient my friends and family around me have been,” she said. “It was just a very difficult time to be a senior, but I feel like people are making the most of it in a certain way.”
Despite having an unexpected senior year, Margaret Thoren '21, who has been studying from Providence, has appreciated going on runs through the city and seeing students gather on the Main Green during her last months of school. It reminds her that “a lot of us are on campus together even though it doesn't always seem like that.”
She has been unable to gather normally with close friends, many of whom were studying abroad during the last “normal” semester, but plans on visiting them when travel is safer. “It's been a very, very long time (since) all of us (have been) together in a normal setting,” she said.
“If I could go back to freshman year and know that I would have a much more limited … college experience than I was anticipating, that definitely would have been something I would have liked to know,” Thoren added. She’s “definitely grateful for the year that I've had, even though it was really not what I was expecting.”
Thoren will celebrate with her roommates and pod-mates after Commencement before spending the summer at home with family.
Completing college in the middle of a pandemic has been very difficult for Sumera Subzwari ’21’s mental health, she said. As a student with a disability, many of the pandemic measures such as isolating and lack of contact had “exacerbated a lot of (existing) mental health issues.” Looking back at her college experience, she said it is hard to separate her last 1.5 years at Brown during COVID from her time before the pandemic.
“I don’t feel like Brown could have done a much better job, but I still feel that my last semester was very disappointing,” Kaitlyn Cook ’21 said, adding that she left for a month because she felt that Brown was not “prioritizing mental health as well as they should have.”
“I felt that the best thing for me to do to graduate from Brown without breaking the guidelines was to actually leave Brown,” Cook added. “And that was, of course, really sad because I love Brown so much.”
In a recent email to The Herald, Dean of the College Rashid Zia encouraged students to utilize existing mental health resources, including CAPS, Student Support Services, deans in Campus Life and academic advising deans.
“We are heartened by the support that faculty, staff and students across our community have extended to one another this semester and throughout the past year,” Zia wrote. “It speaks to the strength and values of our community that so many have asked what they can do to help one another.”
Cook said it has been hard to see her friends at Brown during the pandemic, especially during the winter when socially distanced outdoor activity was more difficult due to the weather. She said if she had known what her senior year would be like, she and her friends might have considered taking leave and returned when restrictions were lifted.
Cook also mentioned that it has been difficult as a water polo player to not have a senior season. “I had planned on playing water polo all four years of college,” she said. “I've been training my whole young adult life to play in college and I didn't get that opportunity to finish that up.”
Despite missing a senior athletic season, Cook has enjoyed experiencing Brown without her athletic commitments. With her added time, she has taken on four separate internships, founded a campus club and gotten involved with a sustainable fashion startup with other students. She has also spent more time outside and in the Providence community, going on walks with new friends and exploring the city, she said.
Despite the challenges COVID-19 has brought, Agrawal has found silver linings in her friendships that have weathered the pandemic. “A lot of what I have going on right now makes me very happy, especially the people I’m living with.”
Bhaskar will return home to St. Louis, Missouri, over the summer to complete a remote internship with the San Francisco Department of Public Health before beginning a graduate program in Oxford, England, in the fall.
“It's very bittersweet because obviously this isn't how I pictured it ending” Bhaskar added. “I feel super nostalgic for my time at Brown.”
Thoren is looking forward to moving to New York City to start a job at J.P. Morgan within the next few months and connecting with acquaintances and the city’s large Brown alumni network. She also hopes she will be able to travel back to Brown with friends in the future to attend a Campus Dance or other event she did not get to experience because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cook will also be moving to New York, where she is excited to start a job as a sustainability analyst for EnergyWatch, a software company that helps organizations analyze their sustainability metrics. “It will be absolutely wonderful to move to a place where just everything is happening,” she said.
For her final semester, Agrawal is looking forward to potentially studying abroad, something she said would probably not have happened if it weren't for COVID. After formally graduating next semester, Agrawal said she will be glad to have “more control over (her) weekends and weekdays” without having schoolwork to worry about.
Not having to worry about homework is an aspect of post-graduate life Subzwari eagerly anticipates. In her added free time, she is looking forward to reading books for fun and playing the piano. She is planning on taking a gap year in the Northeast before applying to medical school.
Regardless of their specific plans and paths, Eram Mallick ’21 thinks the class of 2021 will be uniquely prepared for whatever challenges they will face.
“The world in which we’ll be graduating … is markedly different than the one in which we entered Brown four years ago,” Mallick said. “That's an awesome opportunity for the graduates of 2021 to really rise to the occasion and be leaders in their own right.”
Clarification: A previous version of this article did not include Thoren's first name or class year upon first mention. The article has been updated to include those details.