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Challenge: Back to School 2021

An Open Letter to the Class of 2024

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Returning sophomores, we owe you an enormous debt.

You guys.

I don’t even know where to begin.

I’ll start this letter to you with full disclosure.

For three years, my family has lived deep inside the belly of an elite midwestern university. We are a “faculty family,” here to provide some balance to the culture of campus life. We are encouraged to engage, but we have few actual residential life responsibilities. We treat students as neighbors who occasionally need to be reminded to take out their trash and turn down the music, but who also like my dog and fresh baked cookies and invitations to a BBQ like anyone else.

We were here before the pandemic. We were here during the evacuation of Spring, 2020. And we were here to cautiously welcome you as incoming first years (freshmen) last fall.

We sat anxiously and watched the university desperately plan and pivot to make it possible for the campus to open during those tentative, pre-vaccine days of late 2020. We were here when you quickly unpacked your parents’ cars, subjected yourselves to COVID screens, and locked yourselves in, sometimes with roommates, but often alone.

We felt the silence of a locked down campus just as you did. We joined Zoom dorm meetings where you met your RAs. We saw you get your food to-go and eat it in small groups on the lawn. We watched you mask, inside and out, and we did the same, every time we walked the dog or got in our car. To this day, I wouldn’t recognize any one of the two hundred first years living in my very building if I ran into them, maskless, on the street. They wouldn’t know me either, except for the dog.

We watched the campus COVID tracker in fear. We witnessed the telltale daily walk of the unlucky very few as they dragged their roller bags to the quarantine dorm. We felt the anxiety. The loneliness. The isolation. The disappointment. The frustration.

But we also watched you connect and thrive and experience the joy of simply being away from your parents after so many months of the pandemic already behind us.

I know many of you wondered why you were here. I know that we wondered why we were here too. But in the absence of alternatives, we watched you figure it out, and we were happy to bear witness. We were proud of you, grateful to you, and in awe of you.

Now it is the fall of 2021, and we are watching a whole new class move into the spaces you occupied last year. Things are very different this year, but also infuriatingly the same. We are charging ahead, but we also have the cinderblock of the unvaccinated tied to our ankles. The threat to the world is the same but the threat to this community is greatly reduced because we’re all vaccinated. This year, the campus is a place of unprecedented celebration, confidence, and hope. Still steeped in caution, the university is not asking if we can do it, but how, and how much more. There is a bias for the kind of engagement we didn’t risk a year ago. Not 100%, but a solid 80%, and from what I can tell, nobody is complaining.

Class of 2024- you, like the newcomers, are almost certainly relieved and enjoy the changes. But it is not lost on us that you must have feelings about this fall. The efforts made to make it normal-ish were not possible a year ago. You were robbed, and I am deeply, truly sorry. The experience of being a first year was, in so many ways, taken from you, and can never be returned.

But here is what your university community should say to you:

You guys are heroes.

You came to campus. You had courage and conviction.

You left the safety of your parents’ homes and came to campus, and to the extent that anyone was able, you gave the university community purpose and motivation to move forward. To focus on its core mission. And to continue marching forward.

You did what you had to do to learn and grow and connect and thrive.

Every single member of the class of 2025 owes you an enormous debt for forging ahead and lighting the way. You set a standard for perseverance and grit beyond anything any parent would have wished for their child. You cleared a path in ways that might have overwhelmed your parents (myself included). The Class of 2025, my own child among them, traveled an agonizing pathway of their own to get to the doorsteps of their colleges and universities, but they have been welcomed with a wide-open road ahead because you stepped up and did it first.

Nobody can replace what was taken. But we can acknowledge that those who come after you must respect your journey, honor what you experienced, and thank you for keeping the fire going during some cold dark nights.

You will always be your own generation, forced to share a name and character with no other. The pre-vax class of 2024 who showed up as first-years and made it work. For that, you deserve the honor and respect of every university chancellor, dean, department chair, professor, faculty and staff member who rely on a college campus for their livelihood.

You are this millennium's greatest generation not just because of what you accomplished during the pandemic, but because you proved what is possible. Your perseverance will be critical in the years to come when, I fear, the challenges we face as a planet will stress us even further. Beyond some isolation, disappointment, illness and yes even death. What you’ve done, while great and worthy of deep respect, was simply an opening act. Don’t forget what you’ve already survived as you continue to forge the pathway ahead.

Thank you, 2024. For getting through it. For having grace and courage. And for showing 2025 exactly how it’s done.

And welcome back.

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