Where were you when senior year was canceled?

guest column

The question was one light-hearted Instagram caption among many about COVID-19 and our university’s recent decision to cancel the rest of spring semester classes and activities. I was in Costa Rica when the news broke. Among the most beautiful landscapes I’d ever seen, I felt a deep dissonance knowing that the world was simultaneously so wondrous and so terrifying.

I left for spring break expecting some change when we came back: classes online, events canceled, limited but necessary precautions. But I never dreamt that the last two months of my college career would be snatched away without a proper goodbye.

At the first announcement—an extension of spring break and move to virtual classes for a week—I remained hopeful. Things would be different for a while, but they would eventually go back to normal. But over the course of three days, the potential for a return to normalcy before graduation in May diminished one daily email at a time. Two weeks of online classes turned into a month, turned into the entire semester. Students living on campus were told not to return, even to get their belongings. Each update carried more bad news, more lost hope and more certainty that our senior year was over.

This virus is threatening on multiple levels. As a healthy young person, I worry less about my own safety and instead fret for my parents and other populations at increased risk. The fear of this illness and its health implications are dominant in my mind. But on another level, there’s a different disruption to my life that is both irreversible and deserving of grief. 

Here’s what I know: Duke is more than a school to me. Growing up, I didn’t even know Duke existed. I attended high school in a small, rural town where few students went out of state for college and even fewer attended elite universities. When I came to Duke in the Fall of 2016, I wasn’t yet aware of how being there would radically change me and my path in life. 

For me, Duke symbolizes a world that is separate and foreign from my hometown. When I joined the Duke community, I was introduced to privilege, wealth and success beyond what I had ever imagined; but I also witnessed intellect, curiosity, community and personal growth. Over the last three and a half years, Duke has gone from a place that I never believed I could belong to the place I feel the most myself. It is filled with interesting people, meaningful conversations, comfort and love. Duke is my home.

Senior spring was supposed to be both the culmination of these experiences and the send-off point to the post-grad world; a bridge between college and the rest of our lives. It was the time to ponder adulthood in late-night talks, to showcase cumulative academic research, to deepen connections with acquaintances. But suddenly the bridge has collapsed and all of us are left suspended in mid-air. Time will continue moving even though the life I knew before will not.

The time for my “lasts” has come and gone without me realizing: my last late night studying in the library, my last time making pregame plans for the unknown night ahead, my last time running into a friend on the main quad on the way to class. For many of my friends, the last kiss with a significant other before being forced into premature and indefinite long distance. And then there are “lasts” that I’ll most likely never have at all: shaking hands in a cap and gown, senior pictures in front of the Duke Chapel, goodbye hugs with the people who embellished my life on a nearly daily basis. 

The time of COVID-19 is a time of loss. The loss of life, of profit, of stability, of peace of mind. For me, the loss of two months that I expected to be some of the most meaningful in my life. The community that grew me into a person so different from the 18-year-old that walked into it years before is suddenly scattered. While we, the class of 2020, will have infinite responses to answer where we were when senior year was canceled, there is one that is unanimous and sadly fitting: we were apart.

I’m both scared and hopeful for the changes ahead. When this winter finally becomes spring, perhaps these lost two months will hold something beautiful amongst their casualties. As they say, hindsight is 2020.

Stephanie Mayle is a Trinity senior.


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