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Beatrice Shlansky / Photo Editor

Columbia’s virtual Commencement is a fitting end to the seniors’ last year, which has largely been marked by both disappointment and hope. As student leaders, these seniors had the difficult role of building or maintaining community while looking beyond the gates.

Graduating students are wrapping up their Columbia careers optimistic, disappointed, burnt out, or some combination of each. Instead of the iconic flood of light blue graduation gowns and family members filling up College Walk, students will watch the University’s Commencement ceremony virtually on April 30 while dispersed across the globe.

For graduating students, the virtual ceremony marks the culmination of their Columbia careers. Students near campus have been able to take graduation photos with cardboard cutouts of University administrators––including University President Lee Bollinger, whose cardboard doppelganger was stolen on April 24––and some students plan to watch graduation with friends or family in living rooms or parks. Students have tried to make the most of a nontraditional senior year.

This is the second year in a row that Columbia is holding Commencement online. Seniors in Columbia College and the School of Engineering and Applied Science were given priority for campus housing during the spring term, but about 95 percent of classes remained remote.

Even as Columbia students participate in a virtual graduation, officials have indicated that the pandemic is subsiding. New York state released updated guidance on April 12 that allows for limited in-person graduations effective May 1, the day after Columbia’s ceremony. This guidance was issued too late for Columbia due to the fact that planning for Commencement begins months in advance.

Columbia has not yet committed to a future in-person graduation ceremony for the class of 2021, although it is working with individual schools to host smaller gatherings. Tanya Belova, BC ’21, said that the decision to remain virtual was upsetting for her and her family. Her mother works at Columbia Law School and has been envisioning her graduation on College Walk for a decade.

“We felt forgotten in a lot of ways,” Belova said. “It feels that the school is trying to keep up with this huge crisis that’s going on, and also trying to celebrate seniors, and also trying to somehow make us feel OK after we lost out of this experience that everybody else in the school has been afforded and that we’ve been promised, from the day that we were admitted.”

Belova was the president of the Athena Pre-Law Society at Barnard. She helped organize over 20 events for the club’s speaker series, taking advantage of the online environment by reaching out to prominent legal experts. She ran the mentorship program before becoming president, increasing program participation to its highest rate directly before the lockdown.

After graduation, Belova, who majored in political science and history, will be working in the legal recruiting department of a law firm before becoming a paralegal, and eventually plans to attend law school.

Aryn Davis, SEAS ’21, has been living at home in Texas and said her greatest challenge was accepting the isolation that accompanies living away from campus. She had planned her schedule to afford her the most free time to socialize during her senior year, but with friends similarly spread out, she said they have been united by the difficulties of living away from campus.

“This whole year has kind of been marked by grief, whether that be in our personal lives or grieving what we could have been doing in school,” Davis said. “It feels like a non-stop mourning process, almost, like family members we can’t see or who may have passed, or friends we can’t see anymore, or social interactions we’ve missed out on. That’s been the hardest part––figuring out how to continue going on with a constant reminder that you’re also missing out on so much.”

Davis was the president of the Black Students’ Organization, and she joined the organization during her first year. She organized BSO’s virtual 50th-anniversary tribute to the Malcolm X Lounge in April 2020, and she was also part of Columbia’s fall 2020 Inclusive Public Safety Working Group that sought to revise public safety strategies to combat anti-Black racism.

Davis, who majored in computer science and minored in sociology, will be moving to Seattle following graduation for her new job as a software engineer at Microsoft.

Martha Escobedo, SEAS ’21, lived on campus this year and ended up rooming with students she had never met before but now considers to be some of her best friends. Even so, she said the pandemic has been an exercise in getting to know herself better.

“I’ve been able to learn how to hang out with myself a lot more,” Escobedo said. “Last year and the year prior, I always wanted to be with people and hanging out or studying together, and COVID has very much made me learn how to be self-sufficient.”

As the co-president of Columbia University Engineers Without Borders in 2019, she organized one of the largest conferences for the Northeast region, with about 15 chapters in attendance. She worked on EWB’s solar panel project and went on two implementation trips to Uganda, bringing electric lights to local schools, the town center, and a medical center. She was product manager during 2020, even though the Uganda trip was canceled due to the pandemic.

She said one of the moments she was most proud of was switching her major from environmental engineering to civil engineering. After graduation, she will be working for a construction management firm in New York.

Joon Baek, CC ’21, said that as Columbia College student body president, he had two priorities: to make the online experience as seamless as possible and to foster a sense of community within Columbia College. For both semesters, CCSC drew up successful proposals to enact pass/d/fail grading for one course, regardless of major or Core Curriculum requirements.

“Sometimes I feel like, ‘What am I the president of?’ Sure, it’s the president of student council, but even the entire student body is not on campus, and what my friends and peers told me is that for those who weren’t on campus, it was hard to feel any sense of connection or any sense of community,” Baek said.

Baek, who is from Seoul, South Korea, and started out on student council as the international student representative in his sophomore year, has been a strong advocate for helping international students acclimate to Columbia during his tenure. He pushed for a course through Columbia that offered work authorization for employed international students and organized more networking events with alumni to help students navigate cultural and logistical issues while working in the United States.

When the Trump administration announced its plan in July to deport international students whose universities planned for online classes, Baek was selected by New York Attorney General Letitia James to speak out against the motion during a press conference.

Baek, who majored in computer science and physics, plans to work at a software engineering start-up in New York City after graduation.

Matthew Rosenberg, SEAS ’21, student executive board president of Columbia/Barnard Hillel, said leading an organization during the pandemic has been just as much about change as it has been about conservation. CB Hillel is an organization for Jewish student life housed in the Kraft Center and has about 1,200 members.

He said the communal aspect of Judaism is one of its core tenets. Weekly Shabbat meals, which students used to enjoy together in the Kraft Center on Friday nights, have been turned into to-go meals. With the weather warming back up again, members of Hillel were able to eat Shabbat dinner outside with each other, which he said brought the community closer together.

The board organized a Bananagrams tournament with other Ivy Hillels to foster cross-campus community, and Columbia/Barnard Hillel extended its community action weekend to a week-long drive. Fellowships, including one exclusively made for first-year students, have been made virtual.

“Finding community is definitely a central aspect of what we’ve been trying to do. First-years are zooming from their homes, and they’re looking for community, and it’s hard to find,” Rosenberg said. “We’ve been trying to connect people through social programming, through religious programming, through educational programming.”

Rosenberg, who majored in computer science and minored in electrical engineering, will begin a new job working on software development at Amazon Web Services.

Jonathan Criswell, GS ’21, said that, particularly for this year, his advice has just been to put one foot in front of the other. Criswell served a two-year term as University senator and was co-chair of the Student Affairs Committee. Before being elected Senator, he served as the students with disabilities representative and then chief of policy. He has raised money for Columbia’s Food Pantry, advocated for more testing spaces for students with disabilities, and worked with the Senate in recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

This year, he helped organize and serve on the General Studies Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Taskforce, which promotes anti-racism and multiculturalism at General Studies. He also worked as the undergraduate student representative on the Columbia Alumni Association Board of Directors. In April, he earned Columbia University Trustees and the CAA’s 2021 Campbell Award, which recognizes a graduating student at each school who has shown outstanding leadership and spirit.

“My takeaway from Columbia is being able to learn how to work with people from all over and identify people’s strengths and passions and bring them together. It’s been a really great experience,” Criswell said.

He hopes his story encourages others to pursue their passions. Criswell, who majored in political science, did not finish high school and is a first-generation, low-income student. He became a professional ballet dancer at age 23 then joined the Marine Corps, where he served for seven years.

In addition to his involvement in student government, Criswell found community in General Studies clubs like the U.S. Military Veterans of Columbia University and GS Alliance, a group dedicated toward students in the LGBTQ community.

Callum Kiser, CC ’21, said one of the biggest things he learned was that there is community at Columbia. Kiser has acted for the Varsity Show twice and wrote lyrics for it during his junior year. He realized how undergraduates came together by poking fun at the small things that unite them, such as Ferris Booth Dining Hall or the campus scandal of thumbtacks in mashed potatoes. His last Varsity Show performance, which premieres virtually on May 7, had to be filmed due to the pandemic.

Staying with friends in New York, watching graduates take photos on College Walk, and keeping up with extracurriculars online have been silver linings for Kiser this year. In addition to the Varsity Show, Kiser is co-president of the Christian Union.

“I didn’t enjoy the senior year when I was trying to force it into my dreams and goals of what my senior year would be, like when I was a freshman, for instance, dreaming of my senior year, even a junior,” Kiser said. “You just got to realize that it’s never going to be what you wanted it to be. You just have to shift your perspective into being like ‘This is the bonus round.’ But, Columbia, as I know it––I graduated when we got sent home in March.”

Kiser, who majored in English and concentrated in American history, said he will be bringing the passion he learned from Columbia professors to a new classroom. He will be a middle school English teacher at a Success Academy Charter School in New York.

In addition to the typical stressors of senior year, like finding a job, completing a senior thesis, or performing the lead role in a theater production, the class of 2021, like the graduating class before it, has had to readjust expectations for senior year. Graduation is even more bittersweet, with the pandemic appearing to subside as students spread across the globe.

Davis and her friends have been apartment hunting. Poised to take on full-time jobs where they can build up disposable income, she said they look forward to visiting one another. Although her senior year was disappointing, she knows it is not the end of the road.

“It’s fun to think about taking this new step. All of us are going to be taking this new step,” Davis said. “Even though it has been a hard year, everyone’s going through the same thing, and so definitely a highlight has been realizing that there are support systems already within our friendships with other people.”

Staff writer Talia Abrahamson can be contacted at talia.abrahamson@columbiaspectator.com. Follow Spectator on Twitter at @ColumbiaSpec.

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