Last month, I joined millions of students across the world in beginning my final semester of university online. Through the Yale School of Public Health, I will hopefully graduate (virtually, of course) with my master’s in public health in May. A dizzying prospect for a girl from Scotland. And as we transitioned from classes to Zoom and virtual raising of hands, it was a bittersweet moment for myself and other final year students, for whom our time at Yale has come to a sudden and dramatic halt.

The world is in the midst of a battle of unprecedented proportions, a global health crisis with devastating economic and social consequences, and our priorities have all rightly shifted. But despite this, it has been hard to ignore the feelings of loss from my academic experience ending this way. I arrived in New Haven last June, still not quite believing I had a place in an Ivy League school and so excited for the year ahead. I left New Haven last month in a complete panic and exhausted from anxiety: the UK had issued a warning to all British citizens abroad to return home as soon as possible. I flew home the following day.

With so many friends unable to return to campus after spring break, I only got to say goodbye to a handful of the people who made my experience at Yale so special. It felt unsettling boarding the plane, like those days when you leave the house with a feeling you have forgotten something important, but you can’t quite put your finger on what. I appreciate that this might seem trivial, given what the world is facing right now. In this extremely stressful time, worries of grades and assignments have been quickly replaced by the very real and weighty concerns about my family’s well-being. My mum and sisters are all physicians and I have returned to work as a doctor in intensive care. Missing a few months of campus life should feel incomparable to what some people are facing. And in some ways, it has made these feelings harder to process, almost an acutely lonely experience. I have thought maybe it would be easier to just let go of my time at Yale, push it aside and move on. 

But I’ve come to the realization that it is vital for all of us who are graduating this summer to allow ourselves to feel this loss. We must give ourselves time to feel a little bit heartbroken by how our time at university is nearing a conclusion. Firstly, it reflects the reality that college can play so many different roles for students. For many it is a safe haven, a place of security and peace, a place of experimentation and acceptance and one that pushes you to surpass your own expectations of yourself. It is where, over hungover brunches, late-night walks home, spontaneous road trips and long hours in the library, friends become family and provide a safety net that lasts a lifetime. University was also a physical presence in our lives. I now find myself daydreaming of Sterling Memorial Library — I never quite appreciated the ridiculousness of how beautiful it was until I was faced with completing my courses from my kitchen table. The atmosphere of possibility and opportunity that drives campus life can be intoxicating and exhilarating, evenings spent exploring interests and passions, meeting future colleagues and collaborators and deciding who we want to be or what we plan to do. Ultimately, college is so much more than the grades we leave with. 

As finally we face the reality that campus life is over, we should also take this time to acknowledge the effort it took to be there at all. All the hard work we put into our admission applications, the financial burden we knowingly took on and the challenges many students now may face entering the job market in these uncertain times. It recognizes all the hours in the library, the frantic panic emails to TAs, the cramming to finish exam after exam and assignment after assignment. And despite how dark the world feels right now, it is important to not let that overwhelm the moment when we do all finally graduate. It is okay to have wanted that certificate badly. And more importantly, a photo of you with it to prove it actually happened! (Because let’s be honest, virtual ceremonies just won’t cut it.) So please remember when May arrives and your graduation date hits, to have a quiet (or loud) toast to your time at Yale, to what you overcame to be there and the challenges you undoubtedly conquered to make it through. These are crazy, scary times and there will be bigger, more difficult moments to come this year, but what will never change is that graduating from university is a true achievement and one we should all appreciate, take pride in and celebrate.

Judith McCartney | judith.mccartney@yale.edu