I graduated from Harvard in the middle of the night, having learned a lot about generosity | Ranjana Srivastava

For all of us pandemic graduates caught in a bittersweet moment, I hope it has made us more resilient and optimistic

Last week I graduated from Harvard in the middle of the night. Some students made it to campus in the final weeks to get a glimpse of closed buildings and real classmates. From behind strict borders and yet another Melbourne lockdown, I watched from bed, telling myself what I’d say to my children: “It’s good to be happy for our friends.”

Thanks to a Fulbright award to undertake a master in public administration, my family was set to move to America last year. January 2020 came, and then June and soon, amid a global pandemic, it became clear there would be no “going to Harvard” as such. For the first time in its nearly 400-year-old history, the university was closed.

So for the first time since finishing medical school and now juggling dependent children and ageing parents, I tried to do that time-honoured thing of “making the most” of my university experience. Although the timing was exceptionally terrible and my classes started at 3am, I wasn’t alone. In my global cohort, stress and sickness were everywhere and death didn’t care for an Ivy League education.

My classmates, all mid-career professionals, were driven by the idea of better serving the public good – and every day spent amid the eminent faculty and talented students was a reminder of that responsibility. I felt this responsibility acutely with every notification that the eye-watering accounts have been paid for by the Fulbright Commission.

For many of my classmates, and no doubt other pandemic graduates across the world still piecing together the disjointed experience and missed opportunities, the prospect of making a difference can seem overwhelming. And yet we know it would be a shame to file away the (electronic) degree and return to our old ways.

In reconciling with this, I’ve tried to remember what my sickest patients have taught me: sometimes, the way forward is to deconstruct a challenge into its parts.

When a chance event disrupts lives, how do people go on?

One, by being resilient. Many of my classmates were parents and carers. Those who doubted their capacity to fit in full-time online study turned out to be adept at handling adversity by simply putting one foot in front of the other. No one signed up to attending midnight lectures and take exams at the dining table, but we got there through a collective sense of purpose.

Two, through generosity of spirit. I’ve always thought it remarkable that people caught in the worst storm of their lives can somehow still make space for others. When much is out of their control, they hold on to the power for compassion and empathy. Getting a degree is nothing like navigating illness, but the last year gave even the most self-sufficient among us an opportunity to be generous and accept generosity. As a doctor, I give help but am not good at asking for help. An astute faculty must have noted this and took to periodically writing, “Are you OK?” I can’t quantify the solace of that simple enquiry, but it moved me every time.

Amid the punishments of the pandemic, my classmates also faced typhoons, earthquakes, political upheavals and race riots. The internet crashed and textbooks never arrived. Since experts highlight the importance of doing normal things in an abnormal time, we had to find hope anew.

So we unmuted and waved to curious children on camera, fed babies off camera, completed assignments while debriefing with friends and turned the chicken while contemplating geopolitics. The serious work of getting a degree simply had to be combined with the rituals of home life.

For all of us pandemic graduates caught in a bittersweet moment, university was never the final destination but only a stop along the way. My fellow graduates and I know that our education has equipped us with big ideas and a renewed commitment to public service. I hope it has made us more resilient, generous and hopeful – skills the world needs more than ever.

Contributor

Ranjana Srivastava

The GuardianTramp

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