April 25, 2023

PLOWE | When Goodbye is Complicated: Graduating Post-Pandemic

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I haven’t felt like a Cornell student since freshman year. I enrolled in Cornell in fall of 2019 an eager, eternally curious and empathetic 18-year-old. My first year was raucous as I flowed through nebulous friend groups and dating in a much larger pool of queer people than I had ever imagined. In the spring semester, the arrival of the pandemic happened to coincide with my developing bipolar disorder, two life events which completely changed my relationship to sociality. 

For me, being a Cornell student once meant aspiring to be a socialite, being engaged in more clubs than there is room for on my resume and having the loudest laugh at a party. It meant leading a car full of people off the hill to enjoy the less-polluted gorges, learning how to impress the cool seniors and going to random events to meet new people. But after the pandemic, I simply could no longer exist as this ideal busy Cornellian. 

I took fall 2020 and spring 2021 off in what I call in cover letters a “pandemic gap year,” often citing in conversation that I was unable to do “Zoom University” because of problems focusing on the screen. But no accommodation at the time could allow for the tidal wave of my emotional crises to coexist with studies, on or offline. I was lucky enough to find proper care quickly, so for the year I was able to work locally at a farm and in retail when winter came. 

I had never known so much suffering that year — it was like I could not trust the world to be kind or safe, and I could not trust myself to feel safe and treat myself with kindness. I write this because I know that I am not alone in my suffering. All Cornell students endure suffering, and many experience worse suffering than my own through a variety of uncontrollable life conditions and events. I worry that as Cornell grows in non-pandemic times, students will forget to slow down and spread a culture of mutual care. 

When life finally looked fully “normal” this year, I found myself getting angry that most people were no longer routinely acknowledging suffering in life. Many people became accustomed to speaking about grief and emotional challenges during quarantine and the wake of the murder of George Floyd. When we were losing lives and suffering in isolation, many people found it necessary to pay more attention to the wellbeing of others, to appreciate the time we have together. Culture in New York, and other parts of our country, shifted during the pandemic from initial states of fear to community solidarity. 

The pandemic-learned habits of checking in with one another and prioritizing wellness seemed to have vanished from the student body culture. We seem to have forgotten the suffering everyone endured in 2020-2021. Cornell students, perhaps being immature from my point of view, do not seem prepared to discuss, acknowledge or refer to suffering and emotional difficulty now that most people have moved on from the pain of the pandemic. 

On the other hand, I have noticed my professors consistently checking in with students before class, making mental health resources available on syllabi and just genuinely showing an interest in and sensitivity to students’ wellbeing in an accommodating, gentle and non-invasive manner. Why don’t more students do this for one another? Many faculty also understand that speaking about suffering can even be productive towards furthering a concept in the humanities. I have been in many classrooms where faculty lead discussions on how personal experiences and societal phenomena are not separate, so we are encouraged to speak on our own hardships.

While this emotionally stunted University culture has left me aggravated and ready to leave, I deeply appreciate my time at Cornell, grateful for my stellar education and my oasis community of friends. I have learned on this beautiful land the joy of building connections and arguments across disciplines, through time and space. I have met friends — artists, writers, scientists, musicians, finance girlbosses, journalists, poets, activists — who teach me about the world and myself and inspire me to be a better person. People say Cornell isn’t about the institution, it’s the friends you make. My name is Emma or ED Plowe, and I resign as a columnist with gratitude for you, reader, my friend, too. 

Emma Plowe is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. This is the final installment of her fortnightly column With Gratitude