An Open Letter to My Fellow 2020 Graduates: Let the Love That Surrounds Us Motivate Our Future

Emmy Gnat
Emmy Gnat

Last Sunday I woke up for my college graduation in my childhood bedroom. Surrounded by a collection of stuffed animals and Bat Mitzvah memorabilia, my eyes could only fixate on the white ceiling overhead. Four years earning a degree in another country, and here I am, back in Canada, in a room where I have been cohabiting with my overweight dog. My family was determined to spring me out of my post-college misery and commemorate the occasion with something other than the usual social-distancing routine of scrolling through TikTok in our pajamas.

I pulled on jeans, swiped on a coat of mascara, and threw on a Syracuse University sweatshirt my mom had hung on my door. Coming down the stairs, my sisters wrapped me in a chaplain's robe I had stolen from our high school reverend and crowned me with a construction-paper cap. I walked into a dining room of SU paraphernalia, my grandparents on Zoom (a true miracle), and my boyfriend on as well, a country away from me finishing his final exams during his first year as a physician's assistant student, now also helping on the front lines.

It's difficult to take in the magnitude of our accomplishments. We're mourning the loss of what we expected the conclusion of our adolescence to look like. Our ending is cold, unceremonious.

Although celebratory, I felt numb. It's difficult to take in the magnitude of our accomplishments. We're mourning the loss of what we expected the conclusion of our adolescence to look like. Our ending is cold, unceremonious, and not indicative of the sacrifices each student and family has made to get to this point. But it's not dissimilar to the environment in which the class of 2020 has had to grow up.

Our first days in the classroom were marked by 9/11. We packed our bags and sat at our desks through the rise of school shootings. We watched our friends lose their childhood homes during the 2008 stock crash. Many of us began our collegiate education in 2016 grappling with a change in presidency, one that has trampled our environmental efforts in the wake of extreme climate change, natural disasters, and oil spills.

While I like to think I have the world's greatest parents, they are two of thousands of loving, proud guardians, professors, and friends who have created pseudo-celebrations for the class of 2020. Their compassion and resilience is undeniable in the face of trauma and fear.

These are the parents who put poems in your lunch box to get you through a rough day at school. The friends who are practically family who have come with you to every protest, walkout, and sit in. The grandparents who worked extra shifts beyond their retirement for the money to get you through college. The first-generation immigrant family who supported you as the first to receive a post-secondary education. The professors who allotted class time to talk about mental health, social justice, and world issues when it became more relevant than schoolwork. Their ability to look for optimism when everything seems to fail is inspirational.

Know that it is valid to feel numb, motionless, and empty — the people who helped you get to this day once felt that, too. Yet, their love and passion for your happiness motivated them to find ways to make the darkest days a touch brighter. The class of 2020 did not make it to this day all on our own. As we enter the "real world," it is our time to honor the love that has been given to us and the sacrifices that have been made for our well-being.

In order to be the leaders and change-makers we are destined to be, we must take in the world around us, notice the kindness that is being done amid the chaos. Use your education, your intelligence, and your wisdom to solve a problem that will help another, whether it's as small as an unofficial graduation ceremony or as large as giving your time as a front-line worker or volunteer. Give back to the community that made your college experience and recognize the students that are still struggling with what will happen once the fall comes around. Offer your guidance, even if you're still not sure you have the authority to give that — you do.

The world needs the class of 2020 to share the compassion they have been shown. Look back at your life when people went the extra mile for you, solved problems creatively, and kept your spirits high. Life is a mixed bag of good and bad cards, but walking across that stage, virtually or physically, marks the moment you can give back to the people who have gotten you this far, and help those who still need to get there.

As my parents stood there in front of me in the light of the Zoom camera, singing a personalized version of "We Are the Champions" by Queen, my eyes pooled with tears. Leading to this point, it had been impossible to feel the rushes of pride, sadness, disappointment, and satisfaction — all I had was anger and resentment. But this is what love and growing up as a class of 2020 graduate looked like, and in all of the wrong ways, it was perfectly fitting.