A letter to the class of COVID-19
Dear graduating students,
I can only imagine the sadness and bitterness of having achieved a major success in your life — perhaps your biggest so far — and not being able to celebrate it properly, with a big graduation ceremony and dozens of people congratulating you and offering you flowers, sweets and gifts, and, most importantly, your parents’ eyes and faces beaming and glowing like you have never seen them before. As a famous Arab singer once intoned: “There is no one more joyful in the world than someone celebrating their success.”
For some one of you, the pain may be much bigger, as you may have lost a loved one — family, friend or neighbor — to this devastating pandemic. And, even if you thankfully do not personally know someone who has succumbed to this disease, you must have been depressed by the fast-growing numbers of cases and deaths in the country where you live and in the world beyond.
Before you were able to understand how the world was changing (people locked in their homes, workers losing their jobs, everyone taking big health measures, etc.), your studies took a hit, with classes and exams going online, internships canceled, and graduations made virtual.
If all that was not enough, for students graduating from universities, the elation that was growing in you at the prospects of soon entering “the real world” and earning your first salary started to turn to anxiety and then slowly into fear: The fear of not getting a job for an extended period of time and of facing a very uncertain future.
For students who have just graduated from high school and will soon go to college, I imagine the anxiety and perplexity of (in many cases) having no campus to go to, but instead staying home for at least a semester and taking one’s courses online — with none of the campus life and atmosphere that you had been looking forward to — must be troublesome.
It is difficult to come up with reassuring words and to give you some useful advice in these circumstances, but let me try. As the saying goes, when life gives you lemons, why not make (sweet and refreshing) lemonade? The ideas I want to offer you can be summed up in two short statements: Reflect on what you have learned so far; and use the substantial time that you have suddenly been given in productive ways.
You now have plenty of time on your hands and you have some peace and quiet — the best conditions to reflect, learn, grow and be productive.
Look at the bright side of all this. You now have plenty of time on your hands and you have some peace and quiet — the best conditions to reflect, learn, grow and be productive.
First, spend some time reflecting on your school experience: What did you learn that will stay with you for the rest of your life? What mistakes did you make that you really want to forget but should actually keep in your mind (so you don’t repeat them)? What characters and virtues did you admire in some people (such as teachers, friends and family members) that you would like to develop in yourself? Do spend some time on such reflections.
And, with your available time, I suggest you plug the holes that were left in your education, either because you reneged on your reading duties or you “didn’t have time” to watch that boring “classic” movie you were asked to watch.
I know you don’t like to read, but I hope this lockdown period will help you befriend books. I have a few suggestions of short and wonderful books. For a wisdom gem, check out “The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupery or “The Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch. If you like science (but not too technical), check out “The Language of God” by Francis Collins (who, as I write, has just been awarded the prestigious Templeton Prize) or Carl Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World” (OK, it’s not so short, but I promise you will love it). If you want to understand the world around you, check out “Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything” by Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. The list could be long, I just wanted to mention a few varied titles.
You may also want to beef up your knowledge of cinema and truly great movies. In that case, watch classics such as “Lawrence of Arabia,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “The Message” (the story of Prophet Muhammad) if you haven’t seen it, “Blade Runner,” “Back to the Future” (for fun), “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Interstellar,” and many others that will both entertain and enlighten you.
I have another suggestion, if you can make it work: Use the next few months or (for college graduates) the time until you get a job to volunteer in some local or international organization. Go discover the real world with its needs and struggles, and find ways to help people and the world. The experience will be priceless. It will be transformative and hugely beneficial to you. It will also be a great item on your CV, although you should not do it for that reason.
When I saw that the #ClassofCovid19 hashtag had become #Classof2020strong, I knew that this cohort had strength and resilience and would play its part in not just recovering, but putting the world into better shape. Go make a difference, all of you.
- Nidhal Guessoum is a professor at the American University of Sharjah, UAE. Twitter: @NidhalGuessoum