Illustration by Susanne Niemann

An Open Love-Letter to the Class of 2020

Professor Bryan Waterman’s heartfelt and unequivocal message to the graduating class.

May 2, 2020

Dear Seniors,
Here we are, entering the final month of your college careers. And what an unusual end it’s been for your undergraduate experience. Under normal circumstances, we’d be preparing for public capstone exhibitions, families arriving to meet your friends and professors, post-grad travel and other celebrations. You don’t need someone like me to remind you that you’ve been required to sacrifice so much. Please know, though, that we, your teachers and mentors, realize how hard this has been. I hope it’s at least a small consolation that our entire community is grieving with you.
In spite of everything, we look forward to celebrating your achievements. No one wants to look for silver linings in a situation like this, with so much active suffering not just here but around the globe. There is, though, some perspective to take that may help us frame this moment.
I feel the sting of what’s been lost because we’ve had so very much to lose. What an extraordinary four years you’ve had to this point: I remember meeting some of you at the top of the dunes on Candidate Weekend or eating sushi in the Jumeirah ballrooms at Marhaba. A dozen of you were in my First-Year Writing Seminar in spring 2017 — even more in Contagion and other courses. Look how relevant that oversized reading list has become! With some of you, I shared a chilly New York January-Term. Several of you have been part of other experiences that mean a lot to me: the Core’s student advisory committee, the loving cult of HUA — including the 5:45 am early crowd — the dance floor in front of the stage at the Arts Center’s Barzakh Festival, the comments board on Howler Radio — especially the late-Sunday-night capstoners! Two of you are my capstone students. One of you is my niece.
When you arrived on campus I had just said farewell to the Class of 2016, which to that point had been the cohort that had meant the most to me — the first NYU Abu Dhabi class I had seen through all four years. What a legacy they left us, from the Sad Street Cat iconography to Howler Radio itself. And here we are again, another four-year cycle almost completed, with a group of students who are their equals in every way. I can’t believe it’s gone so fast, especially when I take stock of how much so many of you have grown in the intervening years. When I think about your senior-year experiences that have been altered or upended by this pandemic, they are many. But I take comfort in the idea that these losses can’t erase the many experiences that came before, the things that bonded you and us in the first place.
You were already an extraordinary class. I can’t count the number of exceptional people I know among you, people I already count as friends and look forward to knowing for a lifetime. The unusual end to this year, however, has clearly made you the most distinctive class to graduate from NYUAD since our first Commencement in 2014. And this is why I think that in spite of what you’ve been required to sacrifice, and maybe even because of it, you will have an extraordinary legacy all your own. When you look back on this semester from the vantage point of a five-year reunion, what will you recall? I imagine it will be the ways you stuck together, even when morale was low; the ways you finished with dignity, whatever that means to you; the ways you demonstrated resilience by finding creative and meaningful substitutes for the rituals that have been rendered out of reach.
I look forward every year to the moments right after Commencement, when I rush around the gym looking for as many graduates as possible who have been in my classes or sat on my committees or swung kettlebells with me in the early morning hours. I find you with your classmates, with your parents, with your siblings and try to catch a little of your glow in that moment, to share some sense of how proud you’ve made me and all your teachers, to take a photo to remember you by as you sail off in new directions. Those snapshots may be screenshots this year — my Instagram’s aesthetic, like everyone else’s, will owe a lot to Zoom. But I still hope to meet your parents and siblings. Like many other faculty, I’ll look forward to you introducing them to me online at the end of this month and congratulate you virtually. I’ll look forward to listening in real-time to your student speaker. I’m sure I’ll be just as emotional as I would have been in person, maybe even more. It could be five years before some of us see each other in person again. When it does come, sooner or later, I hope we’ll share hugs and realize that your generation’s mantra is perhaps truer now than it ever was: online friendships are friendships IRL. What’s real is how you feel about each other now — and no virus or unstable internet connection is strong enough to take that away.
I can’t wait to find real and rewarding ways to make this celebration meaningful with you. Thanks again for everything you’ve taught me in the last four years. This institution would not have been the same without each one of you.
Unequivocally yours,
Bryan Waterman Vice Provost for Undergraduate Academic Development
Bryan Waterman is a contributing writer. Email him at
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