Why I Am Optimistic This Graduation Season

What I've learned from teaching a class on “What does it mean to be human?”

Posted May 02, 2020

Each year, I write a blog post celebrating graduation, highlighting the importance of stories about perseverance and accomplishment across the generations as this new generation transitions into adulthood. As research from my Family Narratives Lab demonstrates, these stories provide powerful frameworks as young adults navigate the world.

Each student faces an uncertain future, asking themselves: What will the world look like in five years? Ten years? What professional and personal opportunities will be available? What pathways will be possible and which ones will I take? Who will I be when I finally “grow up?" Family stories provide strength in the face of uncertainty.  

This year, the world is more uncertain than ever, more unpredictable, and, arguably, more scary.  In the last two months, the world has turned upside down. In schools and colleges, we are learning remotely, learning about Zoom-bombing and Zoom-fatigue, and learning that as much as we enjoy seeing each other on our screens, it is no substitute for sharing joys and sorrows, tears and whoops of delight, in person. 

As humans, we crave not just social but physical connection to others: hugs, holding hands, and looking into each other’s eyes. What used to be everyday interaction now seems unreachable – when will the world be normal again? And what will normal look like?

It is into this environment that this cohort of students will graduate. Completing their degrees online, celebrating their accomplishments through Zoom events, and starting their adult pathway via the internet.  It is heartbreaking that just as their personal odysseys are opening up, the world is closing down.  

And yet, today, I am ultimately optimistic. And it is because of these very students. This spring semester, as Director of the Institute for the Liberal Arts at Emory University, I was involved in team-teaching a class on “What does it mean to be human?” that approaches issues and questions basic to our very sense of who we are from multiple perspectives, science, social science, and humanities. The first half of the semester, in person, we engaged in lively discussions around core topics – altruism, consciousness, language, and social relationships. When we went remote after spring break, I was worried.  

But these students connected. They came to class from all over the world, from all their individual time zones, from as close as Atlanta and as far away as Bangkok. They engaged in deep discussions about how the pandemic changed their understanding of what it means to be human, to forge connections, to care about others, to live in cities during a time of crisis, and to be aware of one’s own mortality. 

For their class project, the students proposed a series of programs focused on helping others during the pandemic and beyond. Students met online in small groups to devise lesson plans and tutoring for elementary school children to be delivered online, to deliver online child-sitting services for harried parents, to provide food for families in financial distress and the homeless, to create social connections for those most isolated by the crisis, including the elderly in nursing homes, and more. Many of these we hope to implement over the coming months. But this is what I learned from my students:

  1. As much as we miss meeting in person, we can leverage the power of the internet to forge connections and ideas across the globe. These students are digital natives, and they make this work.
  2. Students affected by the pandemic care as much or more about others as about themselves; these students are compassionate, thoughtful, and creative in coming up with ideas to connect and to help others. These students are fearless; even when coping with their own anxieties, they are ready and able to work to implement change. They are passionate about making the world a better place.  

I don’t know what the future will bring.  But this I do know – if the world is in the hands of today’s students, I am optimistic.