Dear Class of 2022,

An Open Letter to the Class of 2022: On Graduating Amidst Burnout

Professor Bryan Waterman’s ode to the spirit and commitment of the Class of 2022.

May 9, 2022

Dear Class of 2022,
At each of the last two Commencements, I’ve felt moved to write to the graduating seniors, conscious of the disappointment the Covid pandemic had heaped on these classes: study away semesters cut short, friends scattered, family members imperiled by or even lost to the pandemic and capstones and Commencement itself thwarted by the need for safe social distancing. I wanted more than anything to reassure graduates that looking back, years from now, they would still find much to celebrate about their college years, in spite of losses or limitations. I had also been inspired by the resilience so many showed, by their determination to hang together, to carry one another through social upheavals, crises of confidence and the difficulties of navigating an institution that was itself tenuously clinging to its ability to remain open and support students.
As the Class of 2022 spends its final weeks on campus, I’m grateful to The Gazelle’s editors for again giving me space to address the graduating class. Your cohort faces slightly different circumstances than the two preceding years did, notably the resumption of in-person classes and an in-person Commencement ceremony. But in many ways, you’ve carried the effects of the pandemic longer and in heavier loads than your predecessors. Inshallah, we will feel “normal” again someday, as long as that doesn’t mean being complacent. But know and we who cheer you on also know, that the last two years have taken their toll. This was not what you expected when you showed up as first-years. And though seniors traditionally feel some anxiety as graduation nears, we know that many of you simply look forward to the relief of being done. “Burnout is real”: how many times have you heard that sentence this year?
One reason you’re burned out is that so many of you have carried on not just in your individual studies but in your activism and advocacy, your institution-building and, at times, institutional critique. Many of you were scattered around the world when the pandemic broke in the spring of 2020. For some, it would be longer than you expected before returning to Abu Dhabi. And so, from afar, you marched and wrote when George Floyd was murdered; you participated in vigils for occupied Palestine; you mourned for India during the pandemic’s most brutal waves. You raised awareness of the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes. You debated free speech, cancel culture, the limits of liberalism and the need for greater diversity and inclusion in our curriculum. During your senior year, you negotiated the war in Ukraine — some of you spearheaded helping families and friends imperiled — as well as social and academic settings where others just didn’t seem to understand what you were going through. I’ve known many of you since the fall of 2018, sat with you on curriculum committees and in Return to Campus workstreams, learned from you in my courses and in things you wrote and published in The Gazelle or elsewhere. I’ve heard you read from your capstones, seen your films and supervised a few of you as student workers. It’s hard for me to imagine a more committed, harder working crew. The virtual dimensions of the pandemic — the years we all spent on Zoom — meant that many of you woke up at weird hours, maintained contact against odds, held day jobs on one continent and attended classes in others. Prior to Zoom, NYUAD students traveled and when they were away, Abu Dhabi was a distant memory. For you, too often, leaving Abu Dhabi meant that deadlines and obligations traveled with you.
What can I say to those of you who feel, as your undergraduate years come to a close, that you have never had a moment’s rest? Two things come to mind: First, your burnout often comes as a result of how deeply you gave and cared. When the world was falling around you, you fought to protect the things you loved most and advocated for rebuilding something better than we had before. When ties were stretched, you reached out even more regularly to those who needed support. I know from conversations with many of you that these efforts have taken a toll on your individual and collective mental health; from where I’m sitting, I can say that the intensity of your care and commitment to important causes has been an inspiration in my own work. Things I’ve heard from you about these experiences will inform policy recommendations and programming on one hand, but more importantly, I believe I have become a more compassionate teacher as I’ve watched you overcome so many challenges.
Second, I think it’s safe to say that you’ve more than earned a rest. I hope you’re able, in the coming weeks, to step back and appreciate the accomplishments of the last four years. Take some time off if you can. Breathe. There will be things you hoped to do, aspects of the institution you hoped to change, bureaucratic inertia or backlogs you hoped to break through that will remain, to all appearances, unchanged, in spite of all your efforts. And yet you will have to step away. If this is the case, I hope you’ll believe me that you’ve had an impact nonetheless. Change may be slower than you wanted it to be. But much of the building you have been engaged in as a cohort will only come to completion after you’re gone. It will be your gift to students and community members who have not even joined yet. It’s easy and understandable to come through experiences like the ones we’ve endured and to feel disappointment. Hold out hope that the contributions you have made will still benefit others, now and into the future.
I’m feeling a special kind of empathy for your class because this year, I’m leaving too, amist my own feelings of being a little burned out. I know what it means to have made plans only to see them fall, again and again, to the uncertainties of contingency planning or events over which we have no control. Many of the programs I had hoped to overhaul or at least improve still have the same flaws they had when I arrived. But looking back at your four years is giving me occasion to review my own time at NYUAD and to think about the lessons I want to carry forward into the next phase of my career (and life!). And noting the seeds you’ve planted and conversations you’ve carried on that will outlast you, I take comfort that the things I care about most will continue to matter to those who follow. This institution will keep improving as those future cohorts continue to ask big questions and consider multiple perspectives, pushing for an ever more inclusive and cosmopolitan community. Promise me we’ll come back and check on things before too long?
In gratitude for all you’ve continued to give and looking forward to seeing you at Commencement,
Bryan Waterman Vice Provost for Undergraduate Academic Development Global Network Associate Professor of Literature and Creative Writing
Bryan Waterman is a contributing writer. Email him at
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