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"Dear Seniors"

Ellis Mumford ’16
College senior Ellis Mumford ’16 reflects on the disruptions of spring 2020
Dear seniors, dear students, dear anyone who was preparing for, waiting for, hoping for, looking forward to something that isn’t going to happen, dear student-athletes, dear professors,
We are not the hardest hit. We know this. We know we should feel lucky, lucky to be in a group that isn’t likely to be hardest hit by this scary virus. We know that we should put our strength into feeling empathy for all those who will be more impacted: doctors, nurses, anyone in healthcare; grocery store and pharmacy employees; small business owners; people left without a place to go.
This hurts right now. This loss of closure, this sudden change, sudden deep dive into the next phase of life is jarring, painful, leaves you dizzy and reeling for words. This isn’t so bad in the grand scheme of things. Relatively, we should be thankful. But it’s still allowed to hurt.
It’s still allowed to be confusing and painful. Transitions are hard to begin with. Taking these first, fledgling steps from student life to adulthood is full of nostalgia and trepidation. We take unsteady steps, bolstered by the traditions and pomp and circumstance that mark our departure, our entrance to the next phase of life. These are no longer here to provide a safety rail, no longer a cushion, a familiarity to hold onto as we approach the unknown.
Our slow slide into summer and the next phases of our lives became high-dives. And we’re still lucky. We are fortunate to have had all the moments that made our college lives something we will miss. It felt so mundane, in the moments. And how lucky we are to have had an experience that was so comfortably mundane. It fit, it became routine. College became our world, while we weren’t even looking or noticing. It became our home. Our college town became familiar, the streets and businesses well worn in our minds. We all had favorite seats in the library, we have favorite secret dining hall recipes. We have the routes we walk to class, have gotten used to the way the same particular trees tend to bloom the most spectacularly every year, with the sudden stirring of life when the weather gets warms, students congregated in grassy yards. We had the professor who’s class, even at 8 am, we looked forward to going to. And we had that experience, or whatever our experience meant to us. And losing it was going to happen. And its not the end of the world. But we still need to take the time to let it hurt. Moving on is never easy when you don’t feel ready. When it was time for me to graduate high school and go to college, so much of me didn’t feel ready. So I ignored the impending change, pretended it wasn’t coming. It didn’t work. So now one of the charges of the class of 2020 is to be ready for something we could never be ready for, because no one has seen this before. Because we’ve never had the chance to prepare. And how are we going to do this?
No moment is a given. Every day, unexpected things happen that for better or for worse, change the trajectory of the futures we always imagine. But for this kind of dramatic alteration to sweep so quickly through an entire generation is nearly novel.
One thing I propose is looking at life as a journey, not a destination. This sounds so trite and cliche it hurts, but hear me out. In the rat race of an academic environment, it is easy to focus on and pursuantly get caught up on achievements and accolades. This can make a shortened ending feel like it discounts all the work that has been done. But it can’t, it can’t. A quote I have saved to my quotes board of my most favorite quotes reads, “no matter what, no one can take away the dances you’ve already had”. No one can take away the meaning, the power, the significance of the experiences we’ve had. Athletes, I see you. I know the hours you poured into your sport season by season, each building upon the next. I know the blood and tears that went into the offseason, early mornings spent in weightrooms while the rest of the world slept on. It counts. All your achievements up to this point, each game you played, every moment of practice. If you enjoyed it, if you poured yourself into it, it absolutely counts. The reward is not really the ring, the trophy, the awards ceremony. The reward is the experience sacred to itself. The reward is the person you are right now, the person who has been shaped by those hours and laps and reps. That person is someone you will get to take with you for the rest of your life.
To my high school classmates, we saw a difficult ending to our own high school careers. Together, we suffered a loss that rocked our young worlds and the school community we knew. Nothing will ever make that go away or make that better. It is hard to see something good come out of a dark time, sometimes it feels inappropriate to see a positive in a painful situation like that. But nonetheless, we came together. We had to grow up a little quicker than we wanted to. We had to shift our perspectives and priorities. But we came through, and although we suffered a deep, irreparable loss, we still had the chance to have known someone who inspired us, who made us better. We can get through times that feel like there is no way out.
If you’re at all familiar with my own story, you know my transition to college itself wasn’t the smoothest. There were so many nights I thought I would never get through, never adapt to my new circumstance. And yet I did. It became my new normal, my new frame of reference. I built a community, I assimilated to the culture of a collegiate student. We can get through anything. If I could somehow make you understand, and I am not alone in having these, all the moments in my college career that made me stop in my tracks and made me think “how will I ever move on from this”, I wish I could today. My picture, blasted onto the overhead projector screen in front of a lecture of 400 in Williamsburg. A meeting with my coaches where my secrets are brought to harsh light, where the core of who I am feels under attack, my body heaving in sobs. The morning after the most embarrassing night of my life just 4 months ago. Each of these times, I didn’t know how I could move on. I didn’t know how I would keep going, how life would ever get back to how it was. And yet, somehow, after every night I spent sobbing, every drive in the car screaming to myself, pleading to God to give me the strength I didn’t have, the sun came up the next morning. We can endure more than we think we can. It will hurt. In my moments of the most extreme anxiety, where I think I cannot possibly muster the strength to endure the emotional firestorm, I remind myself that I am safe and I am okay. We are safe and we are okay. We need to wash our hands and social distance. But right now, we are going to get through this moment. And the next, and the next, until a new normal establishes itself. Human life has been thrown topsy-turvy before. World War 2, polio, natural disasters. Humans are more resilient than we know. We will be the same again.
We might be changed, but it will be for the better. The me who is nearing the end of my four years of college has been changed by the painful experiences I have gone through. But she is wiser, more patient, more tolerant, and more compassionate. We will make it through this. We will find ways to look back on our college experiences fondly, we will find ways to move forward in this time of uncertainty and boldly carve out the futures that, even when they feel uncertain, certainly await us.
Time used to feel forever for me. It trickled by slowly, painfully slowly, like watching grass grow. I remember knowing that I had four months to go of my freshman year of college, thinking that the time would never pass and I would never make it through. But somehow, day after day, the time passed. And now, it’s hard to believe that three and a half years full of living, of laughter and tears and mundane, boring everyday have passed since that season. Time passes. It always does. This season of uncertainty feels long and like it will be never ending as we sit at the beginning, every possibility still stretching out in front of us. It might be a long process. But life will return to normal. And when it does, and time starts to pass normally again, we will forget just how long and hard this felt. It will be a blip on the radar.
You are not alone. However you are feeling, so many others around the globe are experiencing the same emotion. The same uncertainty, the same sense of loss, the same sense of a punctured balloon, anticlimactic. Social distancing can make us feel alone. But something else that my college experience has taught me is that even when we are physically alone, we are supported and held by and connected to the people who love us. We are all loved, we are all connected to a common humanity. The world celebrates your successes and acknowledges the unique challenges this time brings. Take comfort in knowing that you are going through a monumental, uncomfortable experience with millions of others. We will all get through this, and if we get through this right, we will be brought together. I am always just a text or a phone call away, and so is everyone you love. We are together in spirit more than ever, and we can support each other through this from afar. The relationships that are meant to last will endure, no matter the distance or time or circumstance. The friends I hold most dear in my heart are not the ones I have spent the most time with, have the most numerous quantity of memories with. Instead, they are the friends that were there in the dark times, that my soul is connected to, that can make me smile no matter what. The friends that I have the best quality memories with, that even if we were doing something totally stupid it felt comfortable and fun. The friends who I scroll through instagram and immediately see posts and memes I know to send to them. And those friends, they don’t go away. They might be far from us physically for awhile, our life paths may diverge, but I know they will always be in my circle. Your circle will stay unbroken.
I’m sorry that this didn’t happen the way we wanted it to. The way we learned to expect it. I’m sorry for the traditions broken, the moments of celebration lost. But please know, you are still significant. There will be so many other moments where you will celebrate, feel relief and euphoria and recognition. I suggest you sign up for a 5k. It won’t replace graduation, but you will get to hear tons of people cheering for you (is that why I like running?) (just kidding, kind of). But all light heartedness aside, there will be moments to celebrate. Your achievements now, the work ethic and commitment, the openmindedness and thirst for understanding, the awareness of the intricacies of human awareness and the world as we know it will have prepared you well for so many more moments.
You may get married, you may have a child, get a promotion, get a dog. There will be so many other milestone moments in life, these will not change. Your life is going through a speedbump, not the end of the road. This is an awkwardly placed comma, not a period on your plans.
And hey, we’re all in this together. Everyone might be feeling different things, different levels of sadness and anxiety, different readiness to acknowledge this situation. But everyone is impacted. Everyone is feeling something. Don’t be afraid to reach out. If you need to talk, I am here and so are so many others.
A few more practical thoughts:
Write a letter to yourself in ten years from now. When you feel ready. Write down all of your favorite college memories, what college meant to you, what made it special. Write down what you’d want your future self to know about yourself now, what matters to you, what worries you, what you hope to see change in the future. Write down what you love the most about yourself right now. Write down who your friends are, and what your rituals and routines look like.
Write letters to your friends and the people who changed your life. The people who helped you through hard times, or made the good times good. Write letters to professors, thanking them for what they taught you, and for adapting in these new and difficult times. Write letters to old roommates, to parents, to classmates. Send them. We all need a little love.
Write a list of your accomplishments (big or small) that YOU are most proud of from your college experience. Decorate it. Write down what you overcame, how you grew, what you achieved. Hang it up on your wall and look at it every day.
I love you, for real. One day, this will feel like a blip on the radar, a drop on the bucket. But right now, if it feels big and heavy, let it feel big and heavy. And I promise, day by day, it won’t feel so heavy anymore.
You are stronger and more valuable than you know.

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