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The Class of 2021 should be celebrating graduation right now — but so should everyone

As we emerge from Covid, commencement signifies the end of college, and a new beginning for all of us.
Image: Erin Neil celebrates her virtual graduation from her living room in New York City on April 29, 2021.
Erin Neil, left, celebrates her virtual graduation from her living room in New York City on April 29.Art Streiber

When the class of 2020 was sent home from their respective schools in March of last year, the word coronavirus had just entered our lexicon, mask wearing was not yet mandated, and we all thought a much-needed two-week vacation awaited. When that turned out to be a wildly mistaken assumption, the nation rallied to celebrate the shuttered-in class of 2020 through lawn signs, drive-by graduation parades and a televised ceremony featuring the likes of LeBron James, Alicia Keys and the Obamas.

For the class of 2021, however, the isolation has lasted much longer. We spent the majority of our last year in college sitting in front of computers to listen to Zoom lectures from bedrooms scattered across the country (and in many case the world). Like the class before us, we missed out on final goodbyes to professors and peers, as well as the traditions that provide us with the closure of ending one chapter and starting another. But, unlike the class of 2020, this year’s Covid-19 graduates haven’t gotten a televised special or a national acknowledgement of their resilience.

I personally celebrated my graduation in the living room of my apartment along with my three roommates. I watched as a slide with my name and college major flashed on the computer screen for a nanosecond before moving on, alphabetically, to the next soon-to-be Barnard alum. At least we had the privilege of having our families sitting beside us, which made it a bit more special and a little less of an anticlimactic end to our four-year rollercoaster ride.

And yet, that day on the last Thursday of April — or rather, that whole week — was marked by a joy that I and many of my friends hadn’t felt in over a year. Commencement, while signifying the beginning of our lives after college, felt like something much bigger, more profound.

Sitting there indulging in a celebratory slice of cake on the royal blue couch that my roommates and I had found on Nextdoor, in a room fuller than any I’d experienced in the last year, I couldn’t help but feel like commencement wasn’t just about us. While we were the ones who would soon be receiving a bachelor’s degree in the mail, we all were about to wade into the unfamiliar but exciting territory of newly vaccinated life.

Image: Erin Neil and her roommates, Kayla and Zoe, pop a bottle of champagne following their virtual graduation ceremony in New York City on April 29, 2021.
Erin Neil, right, and her roommates, Kayla and Zoe, pop a bottle of champagne following their virtual graduation ceremony in New York City on April 29, 2021.Art Streiber

Despite my pessimism, I had spent the early summer months of last year planning on returning from my childhood home in Los Angeles to New York and to normalcy for my senior year. My friends and I idealized our off-campus apartment and how we’d decorate it. We wanted to believe we’d still have a fabulous, glitzy end to our college years. None of us wanted to think that the pandemic could extend to our graduation — snuffing out our visions of how we’d finish up college and take our first steps into the future.

But when I pull myself away from my disappointing goodbye to Barnard, I think of all those over the last year who have struggled with losing loved ones, with making ends meet, with balancing work, remote schooling and family. As Covid-19 cases rose and hospital beds filled up, those of us in school still had assignments to do. Those of us who were working still had hours to clock. Too little time was allotted to any of us for grief, sadness and fear.

If we all step outside our individual pandemic experiences and remind ourselves of the shared path we’ve traveled since March 2020, it’s clear that we all deserve a commencement of some kind — some way of acknowledging the year that was lost and the new beginnings to come.

It doesn’t need to be a nationally televised, star-studded event. In fact, it would be fitting that it happens in our homes, the place where most of us have spent the majority of the past year. We should all find our own caps and gowns, play “Pomp and Circumstance” on our phones and march through our living rooms. Even if we’re only moving a metaphorical tassel from one side to the other, to have survived alone is cause for celebration — or at the very least, a slice of cake.