When the novel coronavirus outbreak picked up speed in March, schools and universities nationwide announced cancellation of graduation ceremonies. Many felt that this year’s graduates got “robbed” by the virus. As a member of Georgetown University’s class of 2020, I, too, was disappointed – the ceremony meant a lot to me. I’m the oldest of my siblings so I know how much my family was looking forward to seeing their first kid graduate from college. Naturally, graduation week was going to be a mega-celebration: We planned to dine at 1789 (followed, of course, by a night out at the Tombs), shop on M Street and spend time exploring as many Smithsonian museums as we could.
At the same time, I realized that the letdown of a canceled graduation ceremony was a minor inconvenience compared to a pandemic, and that all of us ought to pour our energy into doing what we can to alleviating the crisis. Last weekend, however, some graduates of Washington, D.C.’s biggest colleges came back into town to take pictures against their favorite on-campus backdrops. I still live in the Georgetown neighborhood and saw quite a few students returning to campus with their families and friends – some in matching outfits, some in caps and gowns – poised to capture their perfect, Instagram-able shots. Others apparently gathered over by the Lincoln Memorial in relatively large numbers. Despite the lack of a conventional graduation ceremony, graduation activities continued, in some ways, as if this was just a normal D.C. spring.
But it’s not. Of course, everyone has a sense of accomplishment – like my classmates, I’m proud to get my degree. But trying to celebrate graduation the way people routinely do every year reflects complete insensitivity to this year’s anything-but-routine tragedy.
The United States now has more than a million-and-a-half reported cases of the coronavirus and is rapidly approaching 100,000 coronavirus-related deaths. Last month, the economy lost more than 20 million jobs. Particularly vulnerable communities have suffered disproportionately, and a wide range of small businesses have been put at risk. People with certain underlying medical conditions are living in fear. Studies as recent as this month reveal that cancer patients who contract covid-19 face higher risk of mortality. Older people are often more vulnerable. How – when so many are at risk, suffering and, in some cases, dying – can we justify any form of celebration? And how can we justify carrying on in a way that conveys a lack of concern for the health of others?
Around the time of spring break, just as the realities of the pandemic were becoming clear, some of us were vacationing on Florida beaches. In Chicago in April, one 20-something hosted a packed house party while, reportedly, his first-responder mom was at work. Thousands of students petitioned to reinstate in-person graduation ceremonies. With hindsight, none of this will reflect well on us.
Through our actions in the last few years, my generation has demonstrated the value of independent thinking, questioning the status quo and standing up against policies that we saw as unjust: We raised voices in solidarity for black lives, we advocated for climate justice, we said #TimesUp, and we protested against gun violence. But now, in a moment of national crisis, we’re inadvertently confirming the stereotype that Generation Z is self-absorbed and self-interested. College-age students in the ’40s enlisted in the military to fight in World War II. College students in the ’60s demonstrated against the Vietnam War. College students in the ’80s protested apartheid. But at a moment when people all around the country and the world are grieving, and in dire straits, too many of us have instead personified indifference and triviality.
In many faith traditions, prescribed periods of mourning are stages of restraint. These breaks from daily life provide space for reflection and a script to reconcile with loss and injury. Today, covid-19 has inflicted wounds across communities. Even if we don’t personally know someone who’s fallen ill, and even if our nation’s leaders haven’t called on us to reflect, we have, in many ways, entered a period of collective mourning. And as we try to navigate our way through this struggle, we must demonstrate compassion and empathy for those who are suffering. It is what makes us human: to put ourselves in the shoes of others in times of crisis and find ways in which we can collectively heal.
One of the ways we can demonstrate compassion, and respect, is to make the most minimal of sacrifices. We can quietly take pride in life’s milestones without the normal pomp and circumstance. That might mean accepting your diploma without gathering one last time with classmates to take snapshots. And as cliched as it sounds, perhaps this lockdown period is also a time for us to do some soul searching. Instead, in some parts of the country, they’re already talking about going back to allowing big wedding receptions by June 1. That’s just a few days away. Like everyone, I enjoy festive weddings – and I wouldn’t ask anyone delay marriage – but while thousands of us are still hurting, are big parties really the way we want to celebrate these occasions? I always look forward to Fourth of July celebrations, but instead of the president’s stated goal of having another big show on the Mall, might it be better to mark Independence Day this year with a more somber event honoring first responders? When did empathy take a back seat in our daily lives? As a nation, we can’t miss the mark when it comes to our moral and social responsibility toward those in pain. The least we can do is to be considerate and thoughtful.
If front line health care workers continue to put their lives on the line every day, if supermarket clerks have to work behind plexiglass, surely, we can suspend our normal indulgences for one year. I don’t mean to undercut the accomplishments of my fellow graduates. But graduation shouldn’t just be looked at as the end of our journey. Now, especially, it must be a marker of our generation’s growth into people of conscience – with the ability to discern what is pragmatic and just. We’re graduating when a global pandemic has not only cost lives but also exposed broken institutions, failed governance and systemic socio-economic inequities. Like it or not, we’re being called to shift from thinking about “me” to thinking about “us.” As young people who’ve had the opportunity of a great education, we should be thinking about how we can be part of the long-term solution, not how much the problem has inconvenienced us in the short term.
Of course, life doesn’t stop. But parts of our lives can be paused: Birthdays will come around next year, weddings can be postponed, anniversary celebrations can be pushed and graduation rites can wait.
Shahbaz is a Georgetown University graduate. He studied in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.