Updated: May 27, 2020
One year ago today, on May 4th 2019, I graduated from college. I was abruptly awoken at 6:00am by my roommate who burst into each of our six bedrooms—upbeat music blaring—to get us up and ready for the big day. Her flashlight beam blinded me and her speakers felt like they were vibrating my entire room, which was the most appropriate wake up call for a day like this. Today, May 4th 2020, she wouldn’t have been able to enter the room, given that the doorway was less than six feet from my bed.
We proudly got dressed in our University of Michigan t-shirts underneath our black gowns and brightly decorated caps, walked out into the charming alley behind our house, and made our way down East University avenue. Inside a banged-up house—worn in with love from many game day Saturdays—we stood surrounded by friends: laughing, crying, toasting, and playing a collection of songs that made up the soundtrack of our last four years. Zoom is great, but I don’t think it would do this moment justice today.
Together, we marched down the winding roads that lead to UofM’s football stadium, “the Big House.” At every turn, a new flock of students emerged into the crowd, forming a massive sea of graduates, with our black gowns sailing behind us. We traveled together as a pack, each of us with a uniquely different story that brought us to one common ending on that day. One year ago, this collective energy was inspiring. The spirit of the crowd was invigorating. Today, a mob of this size is something to be feared.
The Big House field has been graced with some of the most incredible talent of the athletic world. As said by historic coach Bo Schembechler in 1969, “those who stay will be champions.” One year ago, my graduating class had the honor of taking the field. Today, the stadium, and a majority of the surrounding campus, lies empty.
That night, we squished far too many families into our six-person house—eating, drinking, dancing, and reminiscing on the memories made over the last four years. When the clock struck 2:00am, graduation day concluded with an epic display of rebellion as our class refused to leave our favorite bar at closing time. That night, I couldn’t care less about the spilled drinks that landed my way or the fact that we were packed in like sardines. I was just happy to be there one last time. But today, my brain can’t help but compare that bar to a petri dish crawling with germs and respiratory droplets.
So much has changed in just one year, which I could have predicted if I was only talking about myself and my transition into the “real world.” But under normal circumstances, the class of 2020 would have experienced a graduation day very similar to my own. And they deserved one.
Graduates: I’m not here to preach the importance of a glass-half-full attitude. I can empathize with the frustration of sadness being cancelled out by guilt; the feeling that your problems can’t possibly equate to the hardship that so many are facing in the world right now. But you do have a right to be upset. You do have a right to wish that this major milestone could have been commemorated just as you had imagined it for so many years.
In their bestseller The Power of Moments, Chip and Dan Heath wrote, “This is what we mean by ‘thinking in moments’: to recognize where the prose of life needs punctuation.” College undoubtedly deserves punctuation, which is why I’m so glad to see the creativity that is unfolding through virtual ceremonies, socially distant backyard barbecues, and celebratory drive-bys. You’re finding ways to put an exclamation mark on this moment to the best of your abilities.
But more remarkably, I see so much symbolic power in this year’s graduating class. As you transition from student life to true adulthood—one of the most jarring changes in your young life, as I can attest—the entire world is in a state of transition with you. As a collective humanity we have been flipped upside down and inside out in such a way that has forced us to focus, more than ever before, on what is truly important in life. For some, that means saving lives. For others, that means enriching lives. For all, it means slowing down and reconnecting with the people, ideas, and actions that make us the happiest.
With such maniacal focus, there’s no better time to throw away all the expectations of who you “should” become and leap towards what you want. You have a completely blank canvas in front of you, and quite frankly, the rest of us are trying to figure out what to do with parts of our paintings that no longer look right on the wall.
Under any other circumstance, you may have embarked on this momentous transition only to jump onto a moving train, squeezing yourself in a world that was already operating at a million miles a minute. But instead, the train has jolted to a stop. It’s off the tracks completely. And you can decide exactly what part you play in reshaping its trajectory.