What's in store next for graduating seniors?

What's in store next for graduating seniors?
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This summer, all across America, high schools and colleges will play host to the alumni of their graduating classes of 1971 as they come back together to celebrate their 50th class reunions. These graduates saw some consequential times while they were in school: the first moon landing, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the height of the Vietnam War, the Chicago Democratic Convention, and countless other events.

Together, these alumni will look back at those times, talk about how unsure they made them about their futures and how, ultimately, they triumphed to build lives of which they are proud.

The Class of 2021 will tell similar stories in 2071. What they saw was remarkable: protests against racism and social injustice, an insurrection at our nation’s Capitol, and a global pandemic that killed millions. And yet, they have stayed focused, resilient, and graduated. Every college and high school graduate should feel pride in having lived through these times — and hopefully they will learn from what they saw as they move forward, sculpting their futures. 

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To say the past two academic years — especially the current one — have been different than expected is a profound understatement. At a time when the learning experience is so collaborative and sports and social activities are so woven into academic environments, the literal and metaphorical lockdowns required by the pandemic have forced tectonic adjustments and adaptations.

Despite these challenges, students have found their own way forward. Learning on-line or in-person, always socially distanced and wearing masks, seniors have still managed to thread their way through the requirements for graduation and step up to claim their achievements. It has taken a resilience that we adults often struggle to practice.

And we shouldn’t forget that some young people didn’t get this far. The challenges of the pandemic couldn’t be overcome for some. Inequitable access to technology, the loss of a parent or loved one or the loss of jobs or income created barriers for some students that disrupted academics. These young people deserve our compassion and respect — and leaders in education and government owe them the support needed to get back up and keep moving, for themselves and for the good of our society as a whole.

Make no mistake, the past two years will leave their mark. The loss of certain right-of-passage experiences — high school proms, group commencements, the simple joys of chatting up friends in the hall — leave a hole. There’s a grief that comes with what has been lost.

In some cases, the losses are of loved ones and friends who succumbed to the virus. In some cases, the losses are of opportunities, jobs or economic stability. The pain of these losses can do more than just hurt us, if we let it: It can shape us and strengthen us by helping put future losses into perspective and equipping us with the personal tools to deal with loss more constructively.

Our experiences of loss also can empower us to care and to help others deal with loss. The common thread of learning environments, be it high school or college, is an appreciation for the importance of sharing knowledge and experiences for the benefit of all. The past year has given our young people wisdom that they will hopefully be driven to compassionately share when given the chance.

In their next steps forward, this year’s graduating high school and college seniors take with them more than they may realize. In addition to a mastery of the inner workings of Zoom that’s greater than they ever thought was possible, they also have a profound connection with every other graduating senior in the world. Together, they have witnessed first-hand the triumph of science, the pitfalls of ignorance, the power of perseverance, the lingering reality of unequal access to health care and technology and ultimately how working together can truly change the world.

Just imagine what the world’s graduating seniors could accomplish if they put these lessons to work to make the world work better for everyone?

The idealistic power of youth is a force to be reckoned with, and when it is fueled by true experience and tempered in adversity, it can move mountains. The world can’t wait to see how members of the Class of 2021 put their experiences and wisdom to work. The pain of the pandemic just might become a distant memory when we see what they accomplish — together.

John Comerford is president of Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio. Follow on Twitter @Otterbein.