To the Classes of 2020 and 2021:
When the pandemic was in its early months, we wrote an open letter to the class of 2020 in which we celebrated your resilience, sadly acknowledged the fact that you would not experience the traditional in-person Commencement rituals you had long anticipated, and put the best face we could on the Zoom and YouTube alternatives we were preparing for you.
In that letter, we also all found comfort in what we called the “firm promise” of the University to have you return. The gathering “will be all the sweeter, all the more meaningful,” we promised then, “for having been deferred.”
At that time, in our naiveté, none of us expected that not only the class of 2020, but also the class to follow — the class of 2021— would end up having its senior year Commencement experience deferred. And yet, that is what happened. Classes of 2020 and 2021, you together share the distinction of having attended — and graduated from — Harvard College during a historic pandemic.
In the coming decades, when you meet for reunions on campus, you all will be the focus of panels and roundtables. Student journalists of the future will seek you out for interviews. They will want to know: What was it like?
And you will have such varied stories. Some of your stories may be hard to hear: they will describe experiences of anxiety, illness, grief, and missed opportunities. Some may also carry a tinge of anger, as you describe to these future generations all the things that you think Harvard should have done differently.
Other stories will be more philosophical. They will be about the ways in which, even as your on-campus Harvard experience was cut short, your lives expanded in other areas: you deepened relationships with family, you took on responsibility for maintaining a household for the first time, you rethought your priorities and life paths, you discovered new parts of the country and even the world.
Still, other stories some of you will tell, especially members of the Class of 2021, will have future generations rapt while you describe what it was like — as vaccines were rolled out but the pandemic persisted — to be invited back to a much-altered campus for your final Spring semester: the peculiarity of attending online classes from your bedrooms, the grab-and-go dining, the thrice-weekly testing, the universal mask-wearing, the experience of a House social life that had now largely pivoted from Zoom to the (often chilly) outdoors.
In the final weeks of that semester, the Houses invested a lot of effort into figuring out ways to give you all a send-off to remember. On Commencement Day itself, we recognized, toasted, and celebrated you online. But we knew, Class of 2021, that none of it could quite compensate for the disappointment you felt, given the reality that you – like the class before you – would not experience an in-person Commencement.
But now both of you are returning! It is finally your moment for gowns, mortarboards, speeches, bagpipers, marching bands, swing bands, last-chance dances, and champagne toasts. Harvard — and all of us — are all dressed up and waiting for you. Welcome back, Classes of 2020 and 2021! The time for our long-awaited reunion is finally here.
Anne Harrington is the Chair of the Faculty Deans of Harvard College and the Faculty Dean of Pforzheimer House.
This letter was written, reviewed, and submitted by the Faculty Deans of all twelve Houses and the Resident Dean of the Dudley Community.