LLast week I graduated from Harvard in the middle of the night. Some students came to campus in recent weeks to glimpse closed buildings and actual classmates. From behind strict borders and another Melbourne blockade, I watched from my bed, telling myself what I would say to my children: “It’s good to be happy for our friends.”
Thanks to a Fulbright Award to undertake a master’s in public administration, my family was ready to move to America last year. January 2020 came, and then June and soon, in the midst of a global pandemic, it became clear that there would be no “going to Harvard” as such. For the first time in its nearly 400-year history, the university was closed.
So for the first time since I finished medical school and now juggle dependent children and elderly parents, I tried to do that traditional thing of “making the most of” my college experience. Although the moment was exceptionally terrible and my classes started at 3 in the morning, I was not alone. In my global cohort, stress and illness were everywhere and death didn’t care about an Ivy League education.
My classmates, all mid-career professionals, were motivated by the idea of better serving the public good, and each day I spent among the eminent faculty and talented students was a reminder of that responsibility. I felt this responsibility acutely with each notification that the Fulbright Commission had paid the dazzling bills.
For many of my classmates, and certainly other graduates of the pandemic around the world, still rebuilding disjointed experience and missed opportunities, the prospect of making a difference can seem overwhelming. And yet we know it would be a shame to file the (electronic) title and go back to our old ways.
In reconciling with this, I have tried to remember what my sickest patients have taught me: Sometimes the way forward is to deconstruct a challenge into its parts.
When a fortuitous event interrupts lives, how do people follow?
One, being resilient. Many of my classmates were parents and caregivers. Those who doubted their ability to fit into the full-time online study turned out to be adept at handling adversity. simply putting one foot in front of the other. No one signed up to attend the midnight lectures and take dining room table exams, but we came through a collective sense of purpose.
Two, through generosity of spirit. It has always seemed extraordinary to me that people caught in the worst storm of their lives can somehow make room for others. When many things are out of their control, they hold on to the power of compassion and empathy. Earning a degree is nothing like dealing with illness, but last year it provided even the most self-sufficient among us the opportunity to be generous and accept generosity. As a doctor, I give help but I’m not good at asking for help. A crafty faculty must have noticed this and periodically write, “Are you okay?” I can’t quantify the comfort of that simple question, but it always touched me.
In the midst of the pandemic’s punishments, my colleagues also faced typhoons, earthquakes, political upheavals, and race riots. The internet crashed and textbooks never came. Since experts highlight the importance to do normal things in abnormal times, we had to find new hope.
So we mute the sound and say hello to curious kids on camera, feed babies off camera, complete chores while chatting with friends, and spin the chicken while contemplating geopolitics. The serious work of obtaining a degree simply had to be combined with the rituals of home life.
For all the pandemic graduates caught in a bittersweet moment, college was never the final destination, but just a stop along the way. My fellow graduates and I know that our education has equipped us with great ideas and a renewed commitment to public service. I hope it has made us more resilient, generous, and hopeful – skills the world needs more than ever.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism