During the week before spring break, amid all the uncertainty, chaos, and confusion regarding COVID-19, seniors scrambled to create some final moments of senior-spring normalcy. We scurried to give unexpected goodbyes to as many people as possible, hurriedly purchased caps and gowns from the Columbia Bookstore, and arranged for photoshoots. All of a sudden, Low Steps was sprinkled with clusters of Pantone 290. It felt as though the magnolias strewn around campus had bloomed early this year, as they usually bloom when seniors would typically dawn their graduation caps and gowns.
While photographing friends near Low Library, on the Sundial, or on other iconic Columbia locations, community members crossing through campus seemed bewildered and stopped to ask questions like: “Congratulations! Are you graduating early?” “So what’s happening to your classes?” or “Why are you taking graduation pictures now? Isn’t it a bit too early? You guys usually do it when the flowers bloom.”
We politely responded to these questions with a few short rehearsed lines that explained the switch to online classes and the uncertainty of whether Commencement was still happening.
Many of these community members expressed their sadness and offered condolences for our potentially canceled graduation. The repeated comments blurred together into monotonous cordiality. From all of these comments, however, one stood out to me. A Barnard alumna who graduated in the class of ’85 shared a short piece of wisdom.
“I know this is a really difficult time, but don’t let this define your overall experience here,” she said. “You still had a wonderful 3.75 years. That doesn’t go away. You don’t stop being a Barnard student once you leave. Barnard will stay with you for life.”
A few weeks later, I am still thinking about her words. It has now become clear that the typical Columbia Commencement will no longer be held in May (though I am a strong proponent of postponement rather than cancellation). There is no denying that seniors are dealing with an added layer of difficulty.
We will miss out on both senior-specific and general events that are significant to the spring semester. We do not get the closure offered by a symbolic event that celebrates years of academic and personal growth. We do not get to experience the blooming magnolia trees one last time as we take the pictures we will show our grandchildren. However, the biggest loss from this situation is the gradual, predetermined goodbyes we would have given each other knowing that we will not return in the fall.
These complex feelings of grief are undeniable, and there is little that can compensate for these losses. That being said, there is still much to be grateful for as seniors experiencing this unprecedented time in history together. As the random passerby pointed out to me, the only thing we miss out on is the symbolic grand finale. We still gained everything we could have from this institution. We took the classes we loved, participated in the clubs we wanted to, grieved and grew, hurt and healed, and made the friends of a lifetime. We are still the people this institution led us to become.
In the week before spring break, I witnessed the transformative power of empathy, love, and humanity, tenets that we all developed further through this college experience. As my friends and I gathered for final goodbyes and our community came together to support those who needed it most, we showed affection, generosity, and support in a way that challenged movements such as “cancel culture” and “vibe checking” as well as the coldness that Columbia can evoke at times. I see the payoffs of my time here now that I am far away from their source of origin.
If I could go back and change my class year (perhaps kicking my way out of the womb prematurely to make it with the class of 2019), I truly would not. I’ve witnessed my peers plant seeds of growth. I’ve seen how our shaky beginning in fall 2016 created activists who always resiliently advocate for justice despite adversity. I’ve witnessed them create, innovate, and heal together, and I know now that we have the capacity to continue to do this wherever we are in the future. This year, the magnolias bloomed early. But they bloomed together, and they will continue to bloom every year. The beauty of their resilience will be visible even if the streets are empty of observers this spring.
Rasha Biary is a senior at Barnard majoring in economics and minoring in chemistry. She misses Joe’s cappuccinos, sitting on Low Steps, and most importantly, seeing her friends. Please consider visiting this article which details different ways you can help during this pandemic. Shot of Espresso runs alternate Tuesdays.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.