The Most Important Lesson
That The College Class of 2020 has Learned
June, 2020 - Issue #189

This fall, I'll celebrate my 20th year as a professor. The best parts of my job are my "co-workers," the students who join me every week to do the hard work of changing thought processes, understanding how symbols are used and abused in our culture and learning how to advocate for self and others.
Generally, I do this heavy cognitive lifting with seniors. They tend to have one foot dangling in the school pool and one gingerly testing the waters in the "real world," so class time often becomes Mentorship Hour. We talk resumes, job interviews, entrepreneurship - and fears. They want to know that it's Ok not to have a clear plan for the rest of their lives at 21 years old. They need to hear that choosing a lower-paying job that fuels their soul if not their bank account can still pay off. They hope to hear that it's going to be alright.
They like seeing that their worries are shared by their classmates - that they aren't alone in their uncertainty. What they learn during these discussions is nearly, if not more, important than what's reflected on the syllabus. And the biggest lesson of all tends to be, "We're in this together."
Except this year, they weren't.
At least not in the way they expected. Not in the way they felt promised. Not in the way that brings comfort and confidence.
The college Class of 2020 will not cross a stage anytime soon, but they've crossed off one of the most important lessons of their lives: They can do the hard things.
After four years of college, they know they can pass pop quizzes, ace finals, perform on papers, manage PowerPoint Presentations, survive group work and wake up in time for that 8am seminar. They're less sure that they can ace life, though.
COVID-19 was the lesson none of us wanted to teach, but that - once mastered - the Class of 2020 will use to their advantage for the rest of their lives.
When we told the Class of 2020 that they were transitioning to online instruction, many of them lost more than a face-to-face relationship with their professors. Dorm life, fraternal organizations, service clubs, athletics, on-campus employment and much more disappeared, too.
The loss was and will continue to be hard.
But the gains can't be ignored.
Success in today's economy and world requires near-constant innovation, flexibility, critical thinking, self-drive, creativity and resilience - all things that the Class of 2020 exhibited in spades during this unprecedented time.
They'll need it. This group of students planned on entering one of the best job markets in 50 years - but learned that, like life, economies can change quickly.
That's Ok. Because they also learned recently that nothing is permanent - and that they can do the hard things, like figure out how to move cross country during a pandemic; conduct cyber-lab dissections in Biology 499; rock a public speaking class online when there's no "public" to impress; and say goodbye to campuses that doubled as home for four years.
Over the next weeks and months, the Class of 2020 will figure it out - they know how to do that now.
It's our job to remind them that, while now separate, they're still in this together - and that we're with them, too.
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