Dear Classes of 2021, 2022, 2023 and 2024,
Today, when many of us are spending more time than ever in front of the computer, I would like to take a moment to talk to you about where we are and where we are headed in our academic lives together. I will spare you the broad and vague claims about how extraordinary these times are, or about the many disruptions to our familiar world. The question, however, of what to do in the face of these disruptions, remains front-of-mind for many of you as you decide whether or not to return to campus for the fall semester. In theatre, the field of my dedication, we examine the meaning of scenarios and scripts to better understand the motivations and realities embedded in them. Here, I will offer an examination that will hopefully generate some ideas for your consideration.
There was a time when radio was the most sophisticated tool for communication and entertainment. There was a radio in every home, in every car, in every place of business. The roots of radio were intertwined with the infrastructure of our cities, and deeply entrenched in our daily lives to a degree that is nearly impossible to imagine today. When television emerged, as a newer, more accessible form of communication and entertainment, many were reluctant to embrace the new technology. They yielded epithets like “Video Killed the Radio Star,” and vowed to never surrender to the TV set. Undoubtedly, there is a certain safety or comfort in sticking with what you know and resisting technological change as it gallops forward. Tears bring relief for some time, but when they dry up, it is best to take a sharp look at the possibilities these current times bring. In retrospect, we understand that this resistance makes you brittle and inflexible: It ages you and does not equip you with the necessary skills to take advantage of this precious moment. Today, as the means of modern communication have shifted radically to a virtual space, some may say that Zoom is killing the spirit of learning, or limiting students’ potentials. I will not buy this as my mantra. Time is like a book with a new page turning every day. We are indeed in a new chapter, one in which virtual attendance replaces physical attendance. I do not want you to miss this chapter simply because it may be more comfortable to wait until we can return to “business as usual.” If you skip this chapter, you may find it hard to understand what the next chapter is about.
You have an opportunity to take part in a great shift, a shift in which you may set new approaches or come up with new discoveries — something that will win you a Pulitzer, Oscar, or Nobel prize, maybe. You are the generation which has been chosen to move forward professionally, socially, economically, politically, artistically and academically in a virtual, online space. So, I ask you: Why subscribe to a “plan B,” when you can simply reformat and re-establish your “plan A?” If you enrolled to be a Doctor of Medicine thinking you would look nice walking through the corridors in a lab coat with your stethoscope swinging proudly on your neck — well, perhaps you will meet your patients virtually instead. If you dreamed of the applause you’d get as a scientist delivering a lecture at The Plaza Hotel — well, perhaps you will join virtual conferences and have an even larger audience to share your work with. Whether you dreamed of being a lawyer, an actor, a musician or a businessperson, you will have the opportunity to go global, virtually.
Recently, I have witnessed your professors work tirelessly to reshape our academic schedules and offerings to guarantee that nobody will be left behind. It is amazing how faculty and staff have invested their time to help us all move forward, with you being the center of our attention. Our commitment is full, and our Duracell is not running out of energy. I continue to hear from some of my students that it may be better to take a semester or two off. I myself have contemplated the pros and cons of this and, let me tell you, I have found nothing to convince me that time off is the pragmatic choice. To address some of the cons: Some students feel as if they are waiting for a time that will deliver what they have “signed up for.” The world is constantly changing, so why not adjust and take an active participation in shaping our future? Students who feel claustrophobic or overwhelmed at the prospect of not having a social life on campus, let me assure you, we can still be social via virtual channels. Invite me to a virtual party and I am in. I am sympathetic to students who feel that they will not receive high-quality lab or studio experiences in a virtual learning situation. I think, however, that virtual learning reveals new methods of collaboration that may bring students closer with faculty, and present unique and innovative possibilities for future work. For many international students, border closures and travel restrictions present a whole host of anxieties about getting to campus or returning home. I am with you on this, but please rest assured that we will address and overcome any potential border closures, should they arise. These administrative concerns should not rob you of your hopes and dreams. I grew up in Poland, which was a country with restricted entry to the U.S. at the time. Evidently, this did not stop me. I understand also that for many students, the calculus of whether to return to the College in the fall has more to do with emotional/mental health considerations than anything else. These considerations are crucial and should be taken seriously. However, consider that remaining in your familiar worlds may reveal its own difficulties. As far as your medical wellbeing is concerned, rest assured that the College is committed to contact tracing and testing to keep you safe.
The classroom is no longer the limit. The sky is no longer the limit. Do not let your fear prevent you from flying high. Equip yourself with the skills and abilities to engage — whether it is with Black Lives Matter or anything else you stand for. One last thing; this letter was originally composed to my nephew, Abu Sangare ’23, who is a rising sophomore here at Williams. But I now address it to all of you, my dear students of Abu’s generation. See you in class and beyond!
May the force be with you.
Professor Omar Sangare is the Chair of the College’s Theatre Department.