Over the past few years, we have completed one of the most rigorous academic programs in the entire world and together faced the gauntlet of relentless exams, essays, research projects, and problem-sets galore. As we stressed over finals, laughed over the latest meme in columbia buy sell memes, and ventured out into the concrete jungle that is New York City, we became stronger, more mature, and more capable of handling the often unforeseeable challenges that life throws our way. Even so, very few of us expected our Columbia experience to end with such somber solemnity.
It may be impossible to ever fully quantify the devastating impacts that COVID-19 has had and will continue to have on our lives. Within days, we left our campus, our classmates, our friends, our professors, our student groups, and––as it turns out––college life for good. The slow, pervasive anxiety that we felt as cases broke out across the globe shifted to dread. We are crushed by the knowledge that our peers and their loved ones at this moment face uncertainty in such difficult times. We respect the difficult circumstances that the University administration has grappled with in the interest of preserving student safety. In acknowledgment of the importance of student voices during this time, we write today to encourage Columbia to consider the value of hope for a future moment of bliss and celebration.
Once the idea of an alternative, virtual graduation became a stark possibility as other schools committed to it, we, the senior class presidents of Barnard, Columbia College, the School of General Studies, and the School of Engineering and Applied Science, decided to engage in a survey of the senior classes. This survey was created to gather the input of students, students’ families, and alumni in order to determine whether they would prefer that Class Days and other Commencement ceremonies be held online or postponed until they can be held physically.
It has been a little over a week since we began circulating this survey. Of the more than 1,390 respondents so far, 98 percent prefer that graduation festivities be postponed rather than transitioned to an exclusively virtual venue. Therefore, as the representatives of our classes, we urge the University to postpone Class Days and other graduation ceremonies until we can celebrate with each other in person. This course of action balances the prioritization of student safety while preserving the opportunity for us to be recognized and celebrated in front of our friends and families.
Of course, we understand the University’s hesitation to commit to a specific set of dates for these postponed, in-person graduation festivities. Given Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s estimate that COVID-19 infections will peak in five weeks, it’s less of a question of when all on-campus activities can safely resume and more of a question of when we will know if that decision can be made. We also understand the University’s hesitation to hold in-person graduation festivities when we will already be graduates and may no longer be on campus, but from conversations with classmates and given the results of the survey, we feel certain that students will return, as alums, to celebrate with enormous pride.
For many of us, attending Columbia was a lifelong dream. For others, it seemed a fantasy—one that was indefinitely out of reach. Yet, here we are. Throughout it all, there have been moments that centered our desires to achieve and succeed. We dreamed of the day when we could watch classmates, coworkers, and close friends turn their tassels to the left, see the unmitigated pride in the eyes of their relatives and loved ones as they walk across the stage in their Pantone 290 robes. We saw our future and thought, “One day, that will be me.”
We urge the University to incorporate student voices into this conversation. As far away as we are from each other, now more than ever, we need to stand together as a community. We believe that hope is a powerful motivator; the hope of being able to walk on graduation day, surrounded by classmates and professors once again, would be a powerful message of resilience.
James Ritchie, Gabi Garcia, Matthew Linsky, and Sambhav Jain are the senior class presidents of the four undergraduate schools of Columbia University: Columbia College, Barnard, the School of General Studies, and the School of Engineering and Applied Science. They created a survey to gauge whether the class of 2020 favored postponing graduation festivities or holding them online, which can be accessed here.
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