Four years ago, I entered Yale as part of the class of 2021, and now the year I both dreaded and anticipated is here. It’s 2021; my senior spring. What I imagined would be a victory lap after three and a half of the best years of my life looks a lot more like a slog to an ever-moving finish line. Almost every part of my imagined college experience has changed, and these changes due to COVID — multiplied over the thousands of seniors graduating this year and last — produce an impact that we will feel for years to come.
My former suitemates, whom I’ve spent many nights with imagining the future, are now in different cities across the U.S. When I first came to Yale, my idealized college experience was centered around our suite unit; I imagined that we would weather four years of Yale, then enter the rest of the world together. Instead, only three out of my six suitemates from sophomore year are still graduating in 2021, and all of us are headed to very different futures than we had imagined. What remains of our graduating class resembles my ex-suite: altered plans and changed people, staggering in unexpected new directions.
I called those of my former suitemates who are still graduating — pseudonymized here as Paris, Maia and Luisa — and we discussed where we might be in the next couple years. The following are imagined futures loosely based upon these conversations.
In 2024, PARIS lives in a sun-soaked 15th-story apartment, the fourth or fifth she’s lived in since graduating, with a windowsill full of plants: philodendrons, African violets, basil, a Venus flytrap. Her dark hair is now short, shorter than it’s been since college, and her apartment-mates are what she would describe as “boss ladies.” Her phone beeps with a text from one of the teenage girls that she works with at her job as a community organizer; the sound wakes up her pitbull, who lazily flaps an ear and curls back up against the back of her desk chair.
It will be three years since Paris left New Haven and fled to new cities to escape a suffocating senior year spent in quarantine. Feeling that COVID catapulted her prematurely into adulthood, Paris ran in the opposite direction of a stable “adult” job. After graduating, she spent time backpacking in South America, teaching in Spain and organizing in Philadelphia. She went wherever there was movement and action and young people. The wanderer lifestyle she chose was in direct reaction to the sensation of being stuck.
Paris has switched therapists several times over the course of the three years because she always felt like progress wasn’t being made in sessions. Somehow, the pandemic never quite leaves the conversation. Her wanderlust and rejection of normal, “age-appropriate” behavior feels like the continuation of senior year: no demarcation between one chapter ending and another beginning; continual limbo. Her near-excessive accumulation of plants, pets, books, artwork, things, according to her newest therapist, Alicia, represents the anchors that Paris uses to prevent herself from floating away entirely. And her retreat from many of the friends she had made in college, Alicia tells her, may be the response to having grown disconnected from the emotional states of others — she feels alone, and has come to believe that she is alone in feeling alone. Everyone else is a monolith of unrelatable, happy people and she quickly falls away from them, feeling like there is little mutual ground for conversation left.
In 2023, MAIA has joined the consulting company that she has worked for since sophomore summer. She still keeps in touch with a handful of people from college, but she spends most of her time texting her cohort at work about the ever-changing demands of their entertainment industry clientele. Maia recently started seeing someone, but she realizes she doesn’t have a lot of patience for things like nights out. She occasionally does productions with a local theater group, but even that feels like work sometimes.
Graduation had been dampened by so many other competing demands. What once was celebratory and important, had become decidedly… not. Maia rationalized to herself that graduation mattered so little in the context of people losing their loved ones to a raging virus; she had herself so thoroughly convinced that by the time the virtual event came and went, it had long been classified as a forgettable memory. Pomp and circumstance, the commemoration of accomplishment — all foreign concepts. Change was dulled; the anticlimactic feeling of leaving college and starting work was further reinforced by having already spent six months at home, unable to see friends, with the only noticeable change in her day-to-day being a Zoom link with a corporate header instead of a Yale one.
Now a full-fledged member of the workforce, Maia finds that there was no celebration there either. At a company that had once mailed their prospective employees cupcakes to woo them into signing, Maia has not yet tasted a single company-sponsored dessert nor attended a cheese-tasting event. There is no more wining and dining, much less company-sponsored recreation, and even a reduction in company merch. She tells herself, logically, they know you won’t reject a job during COVID, and they are right. And who am I to complain when others are unemployed? The work we do is the most important thing, anyway, she tells herself. The days of after-show parties and spontaneous happy hours are long gone.
Instead of fun with friends, the pleasures of life look a lot more like solitude at home. Since senior year, Maia has begun to enjoy the growth she notices in herself. She has learned more about how to be an adult — cooking recipes, paying rent, being able to decide when to start working and when to stop (the stopping is still hard sometimes). She feels gratitude for the friends that she still talks to from time to time, and for the ordinary things like warm showers and cold drinks. She is getting better at being alone.
In 2022, LUISA, with her plaid backpack and teal Yeti rambler (the same one from sophomore year of Yale), is back to the books, spending most of her time exactly where she had planned for senior year: in libraries and coffee shops. The backdrop has changed, but the rhythms of academia remain a wonderful constant. She misses stability so much that her craving for certainty makes her return to school. The master’s degree wasn’t part of the plan, but neither was this virus, and school feels like the closest thing to normal, even if everything has to be from a laptop.
Luisa is impressed with herself for how well she deals with unmet expectations. Friendships were permanently fractured because of the distance created by the pandemic, and past Luisa would have been torn up every night. Instead, she feels a sense of emptiness where there once lived feelings like attachment. “Maybe if we had been sophomores, the gaps would have slowly been closed again over time, but because of the lasting impression of people in masks keeping distance, dwindingly friendships a year out seem only natural,” she writes in her brand-new Moleskine — teal, like the rambler. The premature separation from her classmates by geographical location, by gap-year “1.5” graduating class divisions, by on- and off-campus, sucks. Luisa feels like they had been rushed into the next phase of their lives before even making it to the climax of the current one. All the more reason, she thinks, to tether herself to some semblance of normalcy: Her weekly course calendar is something she can rely on.
It’s 2021 and I sit in my off-campus apartment, daydreaming about the future and wondering where this spring season will take us. I stare outside the window, wondering when I’ll finally be free from this longing feeling for a chance to gather with my ex-suitemates, to be free of hypervigilance about safety and cleanliness, to just have a sleepover or meet a new friend without worry. I think about my plans to stay in the city next year, and about all the missed potential from an ideal senior year.
The only thing I appreciate is this: Right before we got sent home, I was hurtling toward disaster, going 100 miles per minute into the future, and COVID forced me to slow down. I was forced to recognize the beauty in the slow. Graduation has historically been all about projecting into the future — anticipating what’s to come, cherishing the bright spots within these precious college years, formation and self-discovery in an ever-accelerating landscape. Pandemic graduation seems to be about having the brakes thrown into our plans, and being forced to sit still and alone for a very long time.
Every year, college grads bid goodbye to their family away from home. The difference, this year and the last, is that we did not see our goodbyes coming. Who knew that the last time we’d see Jimmy from Davenport was that final Friday in “Game Theory,” or that we should have hugged Collin from FOOT goodbye when we passed him on the street? Our plans changed; the people in our lives changed. Some of us who thought we would stay in New Haven exited this pandemic deciding it was time to go; and others who entered thinking it was a get-the-degree and get-out situation, found themselves wanting to stay just one more year in New Haven. One more normal year. Disparities and distance grew between the employed and the still-searching; our support systems, the ones that should have been solidified during these past four years, are flimsy at best as we get shuttled into the rest of our adult lives. And yet we persist. We try to bring back the dinners, the movie nights. We make plans once again. We gather as a suite on Zoom and dream out loud about the people we’ll meet, the things we’ll do and the places we’ll go once we graduate into this pandemic and out into the rest of the world. Each of us four departing seniors head in different directions, none of us knowing exactly where we will land. All we have to fuel us onward are some precious memories of the good old days, and faith that we are resilient enough to get through graduating, even in a pandemic.