An open letter to the Class of 2020

guest column

Dear seniors,

I hope this message finds you in as good a place as your current circumstances allow.

My name is Rob, I’m a member of the Class of 2019, and simply put, I can’t begin to imagine the hurt, confusion and frustration you must be grappling with right now.

What I do know is that it’s not your fault. You didn't deserve this. It’s not fair. And in this time of vulnerability, I thought I’d take a moment to be vulnerable with you.

On the night I heard the news that your time on campus would be cut short, and you’d be transitioning to remote online learning until the end of the semester, I couldn't sleep. After finally dozing off, I woke up once or twice in the middle of the night and began to cry.

Not because of the pandemic that threatens to inflict more hurt and more heartbreak upon an already battered world; and not for how the coronavirus threatens to affect me personally.

No, Class. I cried for you, and this coldly unceremonious end to what you were surely counting on being among the most fun-filled days of your life. Days when you might finally get to enjoy all that Duke has to offer beyond the classroom, liberated from the scholastic pressure that had perhaps defined your first three-and-a-half years on campus.

Unfortunately, the coronavirus had other plans. Nothing can change that now, and while there are undoubtedly many others whose lives have been more affected by the virus than yours or mine, make no mistake about it—your loss is legitimate, so go ahead and tune out anyone who tries to tell you otherwise.

Because this I also know: if they have half a mind to put you out for being cheated out of your commencement, your crowning moment that was supposed to be waiting for you at the end of the line, a moment that millions before you have taken for granted dating back several centuries—then these people are not your allies. And in this time of great uncertainty, you need your allies more than ever.

Right now, your classmates are among those allies in your corner, and I know what it feels like when seemingly everything you’ve come to know these last four years is just suddenly going away, and you are powerless to stop it. I was there not too long ago—nine brief months ago, as a matter of fact.

Yet today, nine months into my next chapter, all coronavirus concerns aside, I am happy. And Class, I know that you will be happy again too if you just follow this simple advice—when you are at your most vulnerable, consult your corner. Assemble your allies. Because if they are truly your allies—friends worth holding on to over the next adventure—I promise you that they will never really be gone.

Thank goodness for that, because outside of regular phone calls with my family, consisting mostly of novice questions over how to be a functional adult, it was all of the funny FaceTimes, frequent phone calls and silly snap exchanges with my old classmates that kept me sane through those first few months.

And although I’ve now come to embrace another community of friends in my new home of Atlanta, that doesn’t mean my old circle of fellow Dukies isn’t still on my calendar every week to catch up on the latest happenings in our lives (by the way, you’ll never run out of things to talk about whenever you catch up with your friends from here on out—it’s great).

In fact, I’ll be chatting with more of them later this week, and had the coronavirus not decided to throw a wrench in our universe, I would’ve been seeing several of you on campus this weekend.

So while I could never pretend to understand exactly what it is like to be in your position—being afforded even less time to enjoy what was left of college before what was already sure to be a very bittersweet May afternoon—I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you that your friends aren’t going anywhere that you can’t follow them, virtually or physically.

Amidst all of the other crap that comes with it, this next season is an opportunity for you to forge a bond with your fellow classmates unlike any that your predecessors ever had before, and I know that by the time this nightmare is over, you will be the strongest, closest and most storied class that Duke University has ever seen.

I wish that I could jump through this screen and give all of you a great big hug right now, but since that presents some obvious challenges, I’ll just have to settle for reassurance that you will have each others’ backs as we fight to overcome this unprecedented challenge before us together—and long after it passes, as well.

Class of 2020, you have my heart and my prayers, and as long as we are ForeverDuke, I know there is nothing we can’t accomplish. Keep fighting, stay hopeful and—most importantly—wash your hands.


Rob Palmisano ‘19


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