Let me start with an apology. Through no fault of your own, seniors, you are graduating in the midst of a global pandemic. You will not get your swan song of spring semester, finish that final research project or walk in the graduation you worked so hard to earn. It is a truly terrible twist of fate.
Even though I graduated in 2008, in the midst of the Great Recession, at least my class got the closure that comes with those traditions.
I imagine you are terrified, and rightly so. We all should be.
A microscopic virus took advantage of our interconnected world, causing confounding symptoms we are only just beginning to understand. The world is learning terms like “social distancing,” “antibody testing” and “PPE.” We still don’t know exactly how deadly it is, or why it causes such varied symptoms and rapid decay.
The institutions created in the wake of World War II, designed to save us from this type of calamity, have not fared well. If we are being honest, they have been creaky for a long time, bowing under the weight of years of neglect. The virus just showed us how much fixing needed to be done.
Basically, this is just the beginning of a long journey, the end point is very unclear, and the human race is collectively jumping into the deep at the same time.
So, since we’re in an incomparable moment, there’s not much advice I can offer to you.
However, you are more prepared than you think. I know, because I was more prepared than I thought in 2008.
Williams teaches you to adapt, to think across disciplines and seek answers from disassociated sources. Human history is essentially the story of adaptation. We left the trees and learned to walk. We supplemented lean hunting seasons by learning to farm. We find new solutions as we face new challenges.
Luckily for you, Williams taught you how to adapt many times over. Was it moving to a small town like no other? Was it the weather? Maybe you changed a major, or two? I guarantee you had to adapt both inside and outside the classroom.
Steve Jobs once said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”
Adapt and find your way to the next dot. The story you thought you were going to write was never going to be the one that actually made it to print.
Williams humbles you. In one of your classes, you probably thought, “I am the least intelligent person in the room.” At least I did. Often. It wasn’t true, and it won’t be true when you have that thought again at whatever is your next step.
That humility is useful though, and you should take it with you. It will push you to seek more information and dismiss those who are too certain about what’s next. And you will appreciate that good ideas and vital services can come from anyone, lest we ever again forget grocery clerks, respiratory technicians and truck drivers are essential to how we live.
Despite the loss of your spring semester, I would wager you made lifelong friends already. Lean on them, and let them lean on you. Even during normal times, they will make the hard days easier, and the better days more full. That makes them all the more important now when we are in, well, not normal times.
The College teaches you willpower. It’s a cliche, but it’s true. Most of life is about putting one foot in front of the other, and just keeping on. Was it an impossible report? A presentation topic that made no sense? A game, race or match you thought you would never finish? I bet you kept going regardless.
Many of you likely had your post-graduation plans upended. The job you thought you had might have disappeared. The graduate school you were going to start next fall might be going remote. Those travel plans? Delayed.
Mike Tyson, an oftentimes terrible person but sometimes great philosopher, once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
COVID-19 punched the world in the mouth. We need to reinvent the plan.
Just adapt, stay humble and keep moving forward, and you all will be the generation who does it.
David Turner ’08 lives in Washington, D.C. He is the communications director at the Democratic Governors Association.