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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Thursday, February 29, 2024

Op-ed: The Class of 2021 deserves a real graduation

I woke up on May 23, 2021, ready to graduate. After donning a suit, cap and gown, I walked downstairs to find my housemates in their pajamas.

“Why aren’t you dressed?” I asked.

“Because it’s not a real graduation,” one of my housemates replied.

He was right. A day we had anticipated for years had been reduced to a series of prerecorded videos. Instead of accepting our diplomas from our favorite professors on the Academic Quad, I watched myself graduate on YouTube, projected onto the drab, beige wall of my living room.

Don’t get me wrong: I had, and still do have, much to be grateful for. I was lucky enough to be with my family, take pictures in front of Jumbo and have a meal with my close friends that evening. However, Tufts’ university-wide commencement was entirely virtual, with the entire campus shut down. Seniors who lived on campus had to either crash on a friend’s couch or head back home for graduation day. While we were free to walk around campus, it was deserted and felt far from welcoming. With no celebratory events for students or their loved ones during our final weekend of college, it felt far from a real graduation.

The theme of the Class of 2021’s senior year was one of hardship, boredom and frustration. The constant specter of the pandemic and banishment to The Mods loomed over our heads. In-person classes were rare, and when winter arrived, seeing friends consisted of brief walks in the snow and praying for a 40-degree day to meet on Prez Lawn.

It was ‘college’ in name only. A university’s official purpose is to provide an education for its students. Learning over Zoom may have been somewhat educational, but it did not replace passionate debates in the classroom, studying with friends in the library or learning the choreography of a TDC dance. Zoom was no substitute for the experiences that make college worth it.

Tufts’ mission statement articulates the university’s commitment to “providing transformative experiences for students,” yet our senior year was defined by a lack of transformative experiences; one of the main university-sanctioned experiences of senior year was briefly catching up with old friends in the COVID-19 testing line.

I am not angry with Tufts for abiding by COVID-19 guidelines and protecting its students. But the Class of 2021 was subscribing to — and, in many cases, paying for — a false promise. A real, in-person graduation welcoming our class and our loved ones back to campus and celebrating the achievements of our four years as Jumbos would be an incredibly meaningful gesture to make up for a lost year.

The university administration may argue that we received an in-person graduation when we had our departmental ceremonies in mid-April, weeks before the end of the school year. In reality, these were no replacement for a real graduation. I listened to a five-minute-long speech, walked across a stage with only a third of the students from my major present and didn’t even receive a diploma. There were technical difficulties, limited staff and a complete lack of presence from the Tufts administration, President Anthony Monaco included. After these services, we trudged home in our caps and gowns to prepare for finals and our last two weeks of school.

I was glad to hear that the Class of 2020 will receive a graduation. After all, their senior year — and college as they knew it — ended over the course of mere days in March. While their senior year was suddenly cut off, the Class of 2021 experienced a slow burn, a nonexistent year drawn out by isolation, surveillance, sadness and pessimism.

I can’t help but compare our grade’s experiences with those of neighboring universities. Northeastern students got to walk across a stage at a COVID-19-safe ceremony at Fenway Park. Alumni from Harvard and MIT will be returning to their alma maters this May to receive a makeup in-person graduation. Why won’t Tufts do the same for its Class of 2021?

We are the only class in Tufts’ recent history to miss out on an entire senior year, not just a graduation ceremony. Dinners with President Monaco, Senior Awards ceremonies, the coveted tradition of senior bar nights, in-person Senior Week and above all, the feeling of communal celebration with once-strangers-turned-lifelong-friends — these were just some of the things our grade never had the chance to enjoy.

I acknowledge that the administration made efforts to improve our experience. I, for one, will never turn down a wine tasting or a dumpling cooking class, virtual or not. While these events were fun, they are not substitutes for an in-person celebration of everything we achieved during our time on the hill. If Tufts put more effort into providing its Class of 2021 with some of the experiences we missed out on, it would likely encourage more engagement, participation and donations from alumni in the Tufts community.

Graduating from college is a monumental life achievement, a memory to be treasured forever and revisited constantly. But our grade does not look back on our faux graduation at all. The people I’ve spoken with tell me the same thing: They have tried to forget and move on. They focus on the positive aspects of the end of college by and large, but never do they mention our graduation with the nostalgia it deserves. It is too sad to consider what could have been.

The Class of 2021 made the most of our time at Tufts. We agonized for hours in the library; we ran pre-orientation programs; we engaged with our community; we participated in classes, both virtual and in person. At the very least, we deserve an in-person goodbye. We deserve better than ending our time at Tufts by watching a prerecorded speech in our living rooms. The Tufts administration can and should give us an in-person graduation.