In this piece, Graham writes about how the pandemic has affected his generation: “For the Class of 2020 — which will undoubtedly be known as the coronavirus class — our college experience will forever be unfinished. A poem without a final stanza.”
Graham, 22, grew up in Washington D.C., and Bethesda, Md., graduating from Sidwell Friends School, where he developed a love for Russian literature after reading the great author Leo Tolstoy. As a Yale freshman, he began learning Russian so he could read Tolstoy in Russian, and he soon developed a more general interest in Russia.
This summer, Graham was supposed to travel to Irkutsk, Russia, on a fellowship to write and do environmental work, but it was put on hold because of the coronavirus crisis. He is hoping he can complete it next year. In the summer of 2017, he traveled to Russia for the first time, studying Russia’s language as well as its culture and history.
At Yale, Graham majored in English and co-edited a student magazine, the New Journal, as he developed an interest in writing and journalism. In summer 2018, he interned on the breaking news desk of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Last summer, on a Yale grant, he hiked and pack-rafted more than 150 miles across the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on the northeast corner of Alaska, where the coastal plain is threatened by oil development. The trek, he said, was part of a research and reporting project on the politics of oil in Alaska Native communities and the environmental impact of drilling on the North Slope of Alaska.
Here is the piece by Graham.
By Max Graham
If this year had been like any other in recent memory, this morning I would have put on my tassel and gown and joined more than a thousand of my peers and their families to celebrate college graduation. Instead, in my pajamas, I will watch a short online address by the president of my university. I will spend the rest of the day browsing the Internet for jobs and going for a walk or run — the daily quarantine routine that I have developed over the last two months.
The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has upended lives and economies around the world. More than 300,000 people have died of covid-19 globally. Millions have been laid off as businesses contract or close. Many college seniors, like me, have not experienced anything close to such tragedy. Nonetheless, amid the crisis, students graduating across the United States this spring have felt a disheartening sense of loss. During our last few months as college students, universities closed dorms, canceled activities, relocated classes online, and called off or postponed in-person commencements.
For seniors, this disruption has meant a precipitous and precarious entrance into the real world. We have missed the rituals of proper goodbyes and the final joys of being together on campus. Many with jobs lined up after graduation suddenly found their offers rescinded. We are beginning our professional lives during what might be the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
Our college life disappeared before we had time to grasp that it was gone. In late February, hardly anyone thought that classes would be moved online for the rest of the semester. In early March, during our spring break, my university announced that classes would be converted for one week to an online format. Four days later the school canceled all activities on campus for the remainder of the spring. “We will figure out some way to finish up this class,” one of my professors assured us over email.
When courses resumed virtually, seniors understood that the traditional college experience was over for good. While under rare circumstances some students have been allowed to stay in their on-campus dorms, many have not been permitted back into their rooms, even to retrieve their belongings. One of my friends is still living out of a suitcase in another friend’s off-campus house.
In late April, a school official sent an email announcing that our university would “recognize your accomplishments” in May with online programming. She promised that this alternative “is not a substitute for the opportunity to return to campus to participate in all the ‘pomp and circumstance’” associated with a physical ceremony.
Last week, which would have been our senior week, the university uploaded videos of speeches to a “class day” website. “It is so great to be in New Haven, speaking to the thousands of you, so close together,” a student comedian began one video, as though he were giving the speech that he had always planned to give. Some groups on campus held makeshift celebrations online. I presented my senior thesis to the characteristic array of virtual faces on Zoom. I never got to thank my adviser in person.
I am grateful that my university has done what it could do safely and responsibly to make seniors feel that we have not been forgotten. But seeing Zoom backgrounds of champagne glasses is not the same as clinking glasses with real fizz. Bear hugs from friends and relatives and mortar boards tossed in the air now exist only in our imaginations.
Many universities have said they will host this year’s senior class for an in-person celebration in the future, but few specifics have been disclosed. Even if we return to campus, will everyone be able to come back? Will universities finance travel and lodging for graduates who may not have the funds to return to campus? Will family members have the time and resources to make the trip?
The Class of 2020 will forever miss the feeling of closure that a timely commencement would have granted us. Tradition feels even more necessary now, at the natural conclusion of our senior year, when we lose our shared identity as students. Many college seniors have only ever been students. We have always been students. And many of us will never be students again.
For the Class of 2020 — which will undoubtedly be known as the coronavirus class — our college experience will forever be unfinished. A poem without a final stanza. A painting with canvas still showing.
A week ago, I went on a walk with a good friend who had returned briefly to school, as I had, to move out of our off-campus apartments. We talked for more than an hour as we roamed the empty campus streets that usually crawl with busy students. Both of us cherished the normalcy of a face-to-face conversation. We felt lucky to see each other one last time before our virtual graduation, and to say farewell to the Gothic spires of our old dorms and lecture halls, and the towering elms that surrounded us for almost four years.
When it was time to say goodbye, we resisted the urge to give a handshake or a hug. We waved uncomfortably and went our own, uncertain ways.