Illustration by Isabel Ríos

An Open Letter to the Class of 2021

Professor Bryan Waterman’s heartfelt message to the graduating class this year.

May 2, 2021

Dear Class of 2021,
I’m not crazy about the task of writing to you under these conditions, though I’m grateful for the opportunity. Like you, I would prefer different circumstances as Commencement sends you into the next phase of your lives. But here we are. Used to it? The new normal? Resilient or resigned, we’ve settled into our contingency routines and made them work the best we could, even though your class has faced greater challenges than any senior class in my memory, here or elsewhere. And I’ve learned much from many of you in the process about how to come together, support, advocate, reflect and imagine change.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we’re all connected. As those of you in my Contagion class last fall frequently observed in real time, the connections we share are not all noticeable, reciprocal or requested. No one asks to walk into the path of someone else’s sneeze. You might have once enjoyed air travel — but the virus found it to be an efficient way to spread as well, not something you signed on for when you booked your last trip. And then, for some, travel stopped altogether, whether or not we wanted it to. Although the pandemic has affected populations unevenly — and continues to do so in our current moment of vaccine inequity — it’s also given us occasion for collective outrage, grief, compassion and attempts at consolation.
Wherever you’ve spent the last year, here on campus or isolated from your peers somewhere else, you’ve had plenty of practice at rising above our individual selves. This tendency to be aware of, to think about, to care for each other seems a good place to start as we move forward and I’ve learned much about this impulse by watching you navigate your senior year. This impulse toward collective action and care seems to be one of your defining features as a cohort.
This characteristic has only been thrown into greater relief by the events of the last year. Take the events last summer surrounding George Floyd’s murder and international sympathy demonstrated for Black Lives Matter. Your class, along with many in the classes that preceded and followed yours, demonstrated immediate empathy for and solidarity with victims of racism, signing on to calls for campus action to redress inequities in our own community. The signatures were in the hundreds.
When I think of the fiercest advocates for justice in these areas, many of them come from your cohort. Perhaps it’s because you started under one administration and witnessed closely the transition to another, but you have been intimately involved with institution-building and have also demonstrated a commitment to institutional critique. Not that previous students haven’t been builders and critics. Of course they have, which is part of what makes NYUAD such an exhilarating place to teach. Still, I can single out dozens of you who have broken new ground in these areas: people I’ve sat on committees with twice a week for the last year, but also people I met on university-wide curriculum committees or at admissions recruitment events as far back as your first year. Some of you have been my close advisers on the Core, in official and unofficial capacities, for the full four years.
I have watched and learned from you as Marhaba ambassadors, First Year Dialogue co-facilitators, Resident Assistants and especially those of you who have sat on our Return to Campus workstreams. You have organized your own advocacy groups that make a difference on campus — and beyond — often addressing gaps left by administration and by previous generations of students. I’ve never seen a Student Government as fiercely committed to advocating for its constituents as yours has been or a Gazelle staff as rigorously self-examining as this year’s. You’ve hosted border-crossing radio shows, staged groundbreaking dramas on and off campus, documented our campus lives during lockdown. You’ve even helped design and carry out the Covid-19 saliva study.
I’m not sure any other cohort has fought so hard to hold our school to its highest ideals and whether you did that by working within existing systems or lodging your critiques from without (I see you, NY*AD Twitter!), I rarely witness criticism that isn’t couched within a desire for a better campus community and academic experience, if not for you then for those who follow. Although much of what you have done collectively has been fueled by a shared sense of injustice or just plain anxiety about the future and the future of the institution, I’ve also seen you come together to buoy up each other, to share in triumphs and joy as well as grief.
I loved learning from many of you before Covid-19, whether here in Abu Dhabi or chasing Andy Warhol’s ghost through downtown New York during J-Term. I certainly came to understand myself much better as a teacher by sitting on Zoom with those of you in my class last fall. I’m not sure I would have made it through my pandemic teaching without that group’s support. For every one of you who has come to mean something special to me, there are others among you who have established similar relationships with my colleagues.
Know how much your experience has meant to us and how much we celebrate your successes now. Although many of you have struggled, understandably, especially with the demands of capstones, so much of the work you have done turned out better than you thought it would and much of it will help us better understand our own community. The capstone presentations and projects I’ve seen over the last week have been extraordinary. We will benefit from your work and examples for many years to come.
I’m sure this sounds too rosy for many of you. It has not been an easy year and certainly it was not the senior year you may have imagined or planned for. Much of what we most enjoy about NYUAD was delayed, postponed, clumsily shifted into virtual space or simply set aside. You are justified in experiencing grief, exhaustion and even anger for these losses. But as you finish your final semester and begin to say goodbyes, I hope you will resist cynicism about your cumulative experience here, remembering the moments of friendship that sustained you and the genuine concern the vast majority of faculty, staff, administration and your peers have shown for you throughout.
Will we ever recover what was lost? Probably not. But we will feel remember the bonds forged as we made our way through this experience together and when we meet again, at reunions, on social media or just in airport lounges across the world, we will recall those moments of friendship and solidarity, even if we can’t fully recognize them now.
At the end of Albert Camus’s novel The Plague, when the protagonist, Dr. Rieux, looks back on what he had lost — including his closest friend — he realizes he has gained something substantial in his experience of plague and friendship, even if “all a [person] could win in the conflict between plague and life was knowledge and memories.” Perhaps, he ultimately comes to think, gaining knowledge and memories may be considered “winning the match.”
Along with the rest of our leadership and faculty and the community at large, I salute the Class of 2021 for having won the match and for leaving us so much to remember you by.
See you at Commencement.
Bryan Waterman
Bryan Waterman is the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Academic Development and a Contributing Writer. Email him at
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