Tribute to Class of 2020

/ 1 June 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc with everyone’s lives. But of that, those who are embarking on the next stage of their lives by way of especially high school, but also college, graduation may be getting hit the hardest this time of year. I’m thinking especially of my cousin Anna Wagner, who is graduating from high school today, but also her older brother, Jonas Wagner, who just graduated from college, and the entire Class of 2020 at Avalon, my own high school alma mater, who graduate on Thursday. This is advice to you all as you pass this milestone and a tribute to your hard work, as well as that of everyone in the global Class of 2020 this year.

My first order of business is just to congratulate you. This is no small feat you have accomplished. It is one that not everyone reaches, so you are now welcomed into ranks more exclusive than simply being human. Hard work is finally paying off, and I hope that it feels good even amidst the pandemic derailing your graduation plans. But, actually, the word derailing is a bit strong. You are still graduating, and there will still be ways for you to mark it. So maybe what is really occurring is that you are pioneering a new process for graduations.

If you have your plans made for next steps, more power to you. I realize that in the world we’re living in (be it the pandemic or social unrest follwing the death of George Floyd) even well-laid plans may now be up in the air. Will higher ed campuses even be open come the fall? Honestly, no one quite knows right now. Even if they are, will they be all semester, or will we be right back where we were this semester come October? The unknown is hard, and even more I’d imagine for you, as you set foot on the journey of your next chapter.

But, I want to emphasize further that not having a clear chapter laying ahead of you is fine too. You’ve built a strong foundation that can carry you to any heights that you may dream of. Though I knew when on the stage at Sundin Music Hall at 6 pm on June 9th, 2010, that I’d be headed to Saint John’s University, I really didn’t know exactly what I’d be studying at that time. I had an idea, but what I ultimately majored in was completely different. I certainly didn’t know what my path would be after graduating from Saint John’s University on May 18, 2014. Not knowing is perfectly fine. Maybe it is the most human thing to feel at this time in your life, regardless of the pandemic and unrest.

As you cross this threshold I implore you to not consider it the solid boundary that it may feel like it is. Indeed it is a porous one. That is, stay in touch with your friends. You will get a new friend group in your next chapter, but your current friends are equally important. But also stay in touch with your teachers. Avalon is a unique environment where we all know each other by first name all along. But any school can morph into that once you reach the ranks of being an alum. Social media and the internet more broadly makes this a little easier, but you still need to reach out. Do this. Stay connected. As adulthood takes more of a hold on you, remember your people from high school and college. They will always be part of the bedrock on which you grow.

To my fellow Avalonians, I especially congratualte you on the sucessful completion of your senior project. That is no simple accomplishment. 300+ hours of work on a single project (at least, that is what it was in my day). I’m sure that each of you ran into a number of road blocks, through which you navigated, even if that meant pivoting the focus of your project entirely. I sure ran into those when doing my project. I also recognize the complexity that the lack of in-person senior presentations must have made. I so vividly remember presenting my senior project on iPhone Application Development. I also want to emphasize just how useful the foundation that doing independent projects all throughout high school was for my ability to sucessfully, and in an organized way, do all the work of my college career. Bravo, and from a 2010 graduate, welcome to the ranks of Avalon alumni.

I so vividly remember both my Avalon and SJU graduations. The feeling of walking across the stage, as well as the processions in and out, cannot be replaced entirely in a virtual ceremony. I remember shedding tears as I both walked into Sundin Music Hall, as well as walking across the grass in front of the Abbey and University Church, both while walking in to the graduation ceremonies with my classmates. These ceremonies mark the bittersweet transitions, closing of one chapter, while opening another. You are not finishing you’re book, but merely going on to commence writing the next chapter of it. But such transitions are never happy, so keep that in mind. These are experiences you will not have, and I ache for you as a result.

Likewise, I’m sure plans for traditional graduation parties are all but gone by now. I not only remember my graduation parties, but Anna, I also remember being at Jonas’ high school graduation party amongst you all. I am sad that you will not have the same kind of opportunity. This, too, will feel a bit like a shortchanged end to one chapter and start of another.

The notion of 20/20 vision also seems worth touching on. Where that means you have the clearest vision, we are now seeing just how thoroughly that is not the case as a society in the year 2020. On January 1st few were thinking that we may be where we are today, not even able to recognize your significant milestones the same way as has been longstanding tradition. Yet here we all are, needing to make do with what we have while hoping to keep people safe. At a minimum, you can’t argue with the fact that you’ll have had a fairly unique experience of graduation. But remember by this, too, that you can never have 20/20 vision of your future. This season of uncertainty just goes to show that. So take the bumps in your road in stride, do not let them derail you.

I graduated from Avalon in 2010. At the time, we had no inclination of what would befall us in a mere decade. What a roller coaster of a time we’re living in. The new 20’s definitely are roaring at their start. But we all manage to get through what life throws at us, and this is really no different. You will too. I salute you for making the most of this. Even if this is getting you down right now, just understand that you’ll be stronger because you switched chapters amidst this time.

As you look to what last lessons you can learn from this chapter, I would ask that you turn to the very thing that is making these traditions be different, the diastancing guidelines due to the pandemic. It is remarkable, when you think about it, that our society so quickly took heed of the health warnings instigating the stay-at-home orders and shut down. Yes, there are those ignoring the orders (and, as many are young adults, strive not to become one of them), but by and large we’re obeying them, not for ourselves, but for our neighbors. What an amazing act of kindness that is. Amongst all the bad in this world, we are taking a time out for the good of humanity, that is an enormous act for good. Learn from that, prove yourselves to be a kind generation entering adulthood. The world needs that more than anything right now.

Regardless of what the future holds, it is important to realize that we never stop learning. Even once you finish your schooling, be it at high school, undergraduate, or graduate levels, the learning that you’ll do in your life has only just barely begun. You have tons to learn about what adulting is, as well as what being a decent member of society means. Whatever your area of study and work, it will include a lifetime of learning new things. Perhaps that is part of why Avalon had, at least in my day, a Lifelong Learning requirement, to get us to recognize that learning is never going to stop. As a web and software developer, I am always learning new things, nearly daily. As much as I write code from my head, I am also researching how to do new things and putting that to immediate use. You are destined for similar experiences all throughout your life. Seek them out, and never turn such opportunities away.

This time can seem very lonely, as we are all stuck in our own houses, surrounded by the same small circle all day, every day. Even for the daily class schedules you’ve just completed, that is still a finite regular circle. But a moment like this, your graduation, is one where not only your class, but every graduating class around the world, is together in the same thing, needing to mark this significant milestone with little to none of the traditions that the classes you looked up to just a year ago had. That itself is powerful. More than in past years, you all form a global community, really an entire academic generation, of people who have had this similar, potentially traunmatic, experience tied inseperably to this milestone. It’ll be something that sticks with you forever. Cherish that, even if it pains you today.

So, as you change chapters I want to heartily congratulate you both, Anna and Jonas. Hopefully sometime in the relatively near future we can get together in person to celebrate you two. Until then, and always, know that I’m thinking of you and that I love you.