We have never found a way to go forward without leaving something behind. So quips an artificial intelligence robot from the movie “Interstellar,” loosely paraphrasing Newton’s conservation of linear momentum. This week, as thousands of Yale seniors walk through the gates of Old Campus for the last time, I wonder what, and whom, we leave behind.

We leave behind the memories of classes and extracurriculars, intense activities that dominated our calendars. Whether juggling psets or practices or papers, we gave our all. Yet inevitably, like the contrails left behind by an ascending rocket, the details fade into memory’s haze. Instead we remember the emotions, the people, the joys and tears that these four years defined. 

During a rocket launch, the pre-launch possibilities of an infinite sky transform into the determination of one orbit. This torrent has a riskiest portion called “Max Q”: the short interval when the climbing rocket experiences the most powerful stress on its slender body. For me, that time would probably be junior year. Having decided to do engineering after my first year explorations, my upper-level courses ramped up in difficulty while I searched for professional opportunities and re-navigated social dynamics, all in the midst of an evolving COVID-19 specter. It was so easy to burn out prematurely and get stuck at the wrong altitude. 

But I’m grateful for the people who supported me and gave me strength through the journey. Just as a rocket never flies alone – it is supported by an ever-watchful team of flight controllers and engineers on the ground – I am so glad to have met many great friends and professors here at Yale. Whether in my residential college or classrooms or clubs, Yale’s people powered me through. Thanks for the late-night study sessions, boba resupplies, impromptu karaoke and just being there when it counted. I could not have done it alone.  

So let’s embrace those connections. Keep in touch after graduation. Celebrate each other as we continue life’s journey.

Eventually, after Max Q, the rocket’s main engines must cut off to set the spacecraft free. From here on, we too will go our separate ways from Yale. Of course, behind us Yale itself is not going anywhere. Like a reusable modern booster, it shall soon raise the next generation of undergraduates. Now we, the class of 2023, need to ignite our own engines and streak across the open sky. 

See you on the next orbit at, and beyond, this beautiful planet. 

Yu Jun Shen is a graduating senior in Pauli Murray College.