This column is featured in the 2020 Commencement special issue.
A 2012 gray Chevy Silverado rolls down a Main Street lined with closed doors and hardly any lights. Despite the six rings from the Baker clock tower, the late afternoon traffic is nonexistent. With only a handful of other cars and no students to get in the way, the Chevy cruises ahead, disappearing into the distance.
Flashback almost four years ago, and I was boarding the New York City coach with a hiking backpack full of clothes. I gazed out the window and watched the skyscrapers turn first into suburbs and then into rolling, tree-covered hills. When the bus arrived on campus, I was jolted awake by the screaming students with multicolored hair in neon tutus. I couldn’t help but wonder if everyone at Dartmouth was like them.
I came to campus naive, open-minded and determined. And it wasn’t just me — I was surrounded by a class of enthusiastic, wide-eyed freshmen who wanted to juggle a varsity sport with two clubs, four courses and a social life. Aspirations of academic distinctions, dream jobs and changing the world were the norm, not the exception. If someone had told me then that in four years Donald Trump would be president, the nation would be in lockdown and that I’d wrap up my final term at Dartmouth behind a webcam, I would’ve laughed them off as an apocalyptic lunatic.
For the past three years, every June I have witnessed a new group of seniors cross the stage and move on from Dartmouth. Whether it’s from their occasional visits back to Hanover or run-ins in major cities, one piece of advice from alumni reigns supreme: “Enjoy it while it lasts.” Ever since hearing those words from a shirtless ’16 during my freshman year Homecoming, I’ve envisioned this dichotomous relationship between College and the ominous “Real World.” Yet this term hasn’t fit either of those molds. Instead, it occupies a strange, unpalatable limbo.
From the late nights in the stacks this winter spent finishing up major requirements to staying late after captain’s practice to prepare for one final spring season, it pains me to listen to the countless forgone experiences that all the seniors were saving up for this spring. Ever since the announcement of a remote spring term, I’ve listened to seniors regretfully reminisce on what would have been: Green Key, Senior Week, the packed Green on the first real day of spring, a 75-degree afternoon on the banks of the Connecticut. But what I think we’ll miss most of all is the sense of closure afforded by those experiences.
I’ve never been a big fan of goodbyes. Saying goodbye to something you’ve come to love forces you to confront the reality of leaving it behind. Perhaps a silver lining of the remote nature of our college culmination is that it won’t feel like the abrupt end I’ve always feared. Instead, the barriers between the Dartmouth bubble and life after college have broken down, as we live through an unexpected, imperfect and muddied transition to the real world.
Everyone tells you that college makes up “the best four years of your life.” But often that line of thinking implies that the years to come will be less than satisfactory. While it’s true that we can no longer live in a house full of our closest friends or spend an afternoon playing pickup hockey on Occom Pond, the people and their carefree, zany personalities will endure. Even though I’ve already forgotten last week’s physics material, the knowledge and experiences accumulated over these past three and two-thirds years won’t go away. We don’t have to abandon wearing our favorite bequest, nor are we all of a sudden too old for Keystone, lazy Sundays watching football and tender quesos from the Hop. We don’t have to grow up overnight.
June 14, the day when we shift from saying “I go to Dartmouth” to “I went to Dartmouth,” will mark a milestone, albeit a strange and almost surreal one. But despite the virtual format, as its name suggests, it will still be a “Commencement” — a recognition that graduation is not just the act of closing a door, but also the dawn of a new beginning.
As I watch the Chevy drive off into the distance, the sun begins to dip behind the hills of Norwich. I cross an almost empty intersection, only to pass by one other person whose eyes are only visible between his Big Green baseball cap and blue-and-white surgical mask. Life in Hanover this spring has not been the same without students, just as life after college won’t be the same without being in close proximity to Dartmouth. While we may physically filter in and out of Hanover, I hope these friendships, the youthful energy and the creative ambitions of our class remains. Although many of us have prematurely parted ways from campus, this need not be a final goodbye.
As June 14 looms on the horizon, I hope not to close a door, but to keep it wide open.
Aidan Sheinberg '20 is the former publisher of The Dartmouth.