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Liz Nichols / Staff Illustrator

“HOLD FAST TO THE SPIRIT OF YOUTH. LET YEARS TO COME DO WHAT THEY MAY.” The quote, embossed in gold above the John Jay lounge’s fireplace, seems to be etched just as deep within our minds.

And with the onslaught of alumni events, special talks from coveted figures, and the names of writers and philosophers etched along the top of Butler Library, we’re constantly reminded what these “years to come” might hold—what kinds of people we may grow to be.

This offers food for thought as we watch society’s “role models” respond to today’s coronavirus pandemic. And feeling disappointed by them is not novel—plenty of examples come to mind. There are the unfathomably rich who oppress their workers, profit further off the crisis, or gain public favor by donating an ounce of their potentially crisis-solving wealth. There are the famous athletes or artists who refuse to take advantage of their massive platforms other than to raise money for foundation X or Go-Fund-Me Y; they ask us to imagine a better world, instead of organizing to actually build one. Our leaders have failed to foster a society equipped to confront this devastating virus. You can look up “coronavirus exposes...” to see every societal pitfall the virus has highlighted.

Yet, there are other, lesser-known role models who have emerged in the wake of this pandemic. One New Jersey newspaper delivery man is bringing groceries to people on and off his delivery route. Thousands of New Yorkers are uniting to deliver medicine, food, and supplies to those who need them. Over 750,000 people have applied to support the United Kingdom’s National Health Service—after it initially aimed for 250,000 volunteers.

There are even role models we face more immediately: professors. It’s almost taken as inevitable to encounter professors who seem callous, difficult, or unempathetic. There are professors who even now persist in frustrating behavior. But there are also those who are meeting the moment with a spirit I’d be proud to emulate.

“There is no way I can imagine failing anyone in the midst of a pandemic, so the TAs and I wanted to underscore up [front] that we are committed to passing everyone this semester. … I am hoping that you will all find it liberating not to worry about grades and just to focus on finding as much meaning as you can in the class.”

This is what my environmental history professor, Karl Jacoby, emailed to me and my classmates hours after our first Zoom session. My mind hasn’t been constantly focused on grades. Instead, I’ve been lost in what many of us are feeling: anxiety from uncertainty and fear for the well-being of loved ones. Besides these overwhelming anxieties, the proposition of my classmates handling academics normally, given every potential burden—financial concerns, accessibility issues, conditions at home, to name a few—is simply a bad one. To Professor Jacoby’s point, given these preoccupations, it did feel liberating to know he cares primarily for our well-being and has allowed us to appreciate his class material in whichever way possible.

And in feeling so uplifted by my professor, yet so disappointed by those other conventional “role models,” I am reminded how they may have once been “just like us”—awkward, nervous, wide-eyed, and bushy-tailed kids ready to take on the world. Consequently, how often these role models seem to leave so much to be desired demands our attention. The idea that many of them were supposedly “just like us” should be as alarming as it is inspiring.

Why do some idealistic young people slowly turn into the same people they may have scorned in college? Maybe it has to do with what the “years to come” hold—illusory temptations of self-interest leading us astray from what we used to value.

Some go from intimately understanding the power of something like New York’s volunteers or Professor Jacoby’s empathy to becoming something contrary to it: maybe a billionaire who couldn’t conceive of giving more than below the barest minimum; someone famous whose activism is limited to whatever is least likely to threaten their status; or perhaps an academic, concerned less with the day-to-day chores of teaching, and more with the rush of having their name on a plaque or book.

However, there are even more reasons why we can remain wide-eyed and bushy-tailed. Because even while the coronavirus spreads all the more rapidly, due to failures of the same institutions that have beaten us down and thus allowed us to feel so tempted to serve ourselves, we’re also reminded of the role models who surround us—who have challenged these laid-out, cynical paths.

To be so focused on the well-being of others is a spirit that takes time to nurture, and one that can be easily corroded in a world where it seems so easy to just worry about yourself.

And sure, years will come, and opportunities for ourselves will arise. But if we try our best to not simply let these years “do what they may,” and actually hold onto our youthful ideals and our altruistic spirit, we can become the people we are proud to look up to.

Prem Thakker is a junior at Columbia College studying history. He believes our biggest priority right now is to take care of each other—those closest to us, and those we may never meet. This means we all must push for much better than what we have always settled for as “normal,” and “how things are” because that is exactly what has led us to today. Any thoughts? Reach out at pt2480@columbia.edu. Colon, Closed Parentheses runs alternate Mondays

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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