Nearly four years ago, my class faced what felt like a crisis without comparison. Just as we were beginning our first year at Yale, the president’s election felt like an assault on reason and aptitude, the very virtues our newfound home championed. In quieter moments, many of us recognized that it was a rightful rejection of an arrogant, out of touch intelligentsia.
What was most scary about the moment, though, was its scale. As we fretted about the little worries that only Yale first years have, the political shift introduced by the president’s election felt so immense, so beyond conceptualization and rationalization, that it required all of us to radically reorient the lenses through which we considered our futures.
Today, we face a similarly big moment: a global pandemic that has dramatically and rapidly changed all of our lives. It is similarly scary in its scale. As tens of millions in our country are infected by COVID-19, unemployment, or both, anchoring ourselves as individuals feels all but impossible.
That our time at Yale was bookended by these two big moments feels like an incomparably bad strain of luck. But it is also a privilege to have experienced Yale during this four-year period, an opportunity in history exclusive to the class of 2020. By going through what is typically a time of personal development during a period of global crises, we were gifted a set of four virtues that will grant us increasing returns for the rest of our lives.
First, we graduate from Yale with resilience. As the conclusion of our senior year fell apart before our eyes, we carried on with remarkable strength. We still finished research projects and theses. We still finished classes, shellacking the surrealness of Zoom with a steadfast, unspoken commitment to maintaining normalcy. We ground our teeth and carried on, refusing to surrender to something far bigger and more powerful than Yale. As our country and world enter into historic volatility, our strength through dedication is a good value to hold.
Second, we graduate from Yale with agility. As almost everything following our graduation is tinged in uncertainty, we are forced — perhaps for the first time in our lives — to take the short view. When nothing is sure anymore, we become adept at being flexible, even when we do not want to be. The ambiguity clouding what’s next is a genuine opportunity to shed the tendency to overstrategize which characterizes the archetypical Yalie.
Third, we graduate from Yale with purpose. The president’s election challenged many of the core values we assumed were ubiquitous. It forced us to define precisely what our world ought to look like and what small role we might be able to play within it. Our laundry list of traditionally liberal values had to be refined and prioritized, tailored to consider what matters in deeply pragmatic ways and what, truthfully, does not. Identifying where we can make a legitimate difference in the world is a practical, nearly cynical skill. It’s one that many who graduated before us did not have the privilege to gain. We are prepared for lives of servant leadership like no class before us.
Finally, we graduate from Yale with perspective. Just as we had to refine our values, we had to reconsider how we uphold them. Policing pronouns and throwing tantrums in Silliman’s courtyard seem less relevant in the face of family separations at our southern border. The minor inconveniences we, at Yale, face mean so little in the context of these big moments that surround us. Our environment forces us to think about what we have in perpetually relative, existential terms: a job, though perhaps not a perfect one. A good candidate, though perhaps not a perfect one. A plan, though perhaps not our first one.
Despite these big moments, Yale remains timeless. It, and we, will persevere through this moment, and other periods of immense uncertainty throughout our lives. But there is no question that our class, the class of 2020, will forever be a historic one. I hope that we treat the distinct set of virtues that our circumstances, and no others, have given us — resilience, agility, purpose and perspective — as the ultimate graduation gift.
Emil Friedman is a graduating senior in Silliman College. He is a former staff columnist and Opinion editor for the News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.