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Note from UMBC president to 2020 graduates | COMMENTARY

The coronavirus has meant the cancellation of commencement ceremonies across the country.
The coronavirus has meant the cancellation of commencement ceremonies across the country. (Steve Ruark/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Suspending commencement plans for this spring was clearly the right thing to do. Even before Maryland’s governor shut down such gatherings and issued a stay-at-home order in our state, my University of Maryland, Baltimore County colleagues and I agreed it was necessary, whether thinking broadly about public health or the safety of our graduating students and their families.

That didn’t make sharing this news with the Class of 2020 any easier.

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Commencement, whether from high school, college, or graduate school, is the ultimate recognition of hard work and achievement. It’s an inflection point marking the completion of goals and the setting of new ones. Each year, on campuses and at schools across the country, we gather to celebrate our students and revel in the promise of what’s ahead.

In a video sent to our graduates, I told them I share their disappointment at this turn of events, and I said we will work with them to find the best way to celebrate their achievements. I also offered a message that I hoped would uplift them.

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This is a generation-defining moment that calls for the best of them, as it does all of us. Now, more than ever, we need compassionate leaders and creative problem solvers. We need thinkers who respect evidence and evaluate arguments, and we need experts across disciplines who can help us navigate the medical, economic, and social challenges ahead of us.

Reflecting on these words, I recognize they may offer limited comfort, particularly to those who’ve lost loved ones or are facing all manner of hardships. Like all of us, soon-to-be graduates are devastated by news of widespread suffering as the disease keeps spreading and the death toll rises. Asked to self quarantine during the precious final weeks of the semester, they and their classmates face a range of new demands and responsibilities on top of the workloads from online courses. Instead of savoring this time, many will contemplate the faltering economy and what it might mean for their future plans.

And yet watching my campus respond to this crisis, and learning about responses in communities across the country and the world, I can’t help but find reasons to be hopeful for the future.

Students and faculty, faced with the sudden switch to distance learning, are nevertheless finding ways to support one another. Colleagues are working together, albeit remotely, and are sharing ideas for making the best use of technology to reach students. Campus leaders are working tirelessly to respond to a multitude of challenges and adapt to changing circumstances.

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Leaders, including Maryland’s governor and the University System of Maryland chancellor and regents, are showing that it’s possible to combine compassion and resolve in responding to this crisis. And all of us, forced to keep our physical distance, are seeing how connected we are, and we are finding new ways to build and sustain community. Boundaries are blurring as we confront this challenge alongside our friends, students, colleagues and neighbors, and we understand that what happens in one part of the world can swiftly impact everywhere else.

In time, the difficulties we now face will begin to recede, and there will be a chance to look forward again and ask, “What do we want to be as a society? Who will we be as individuals, or as families?”

This crisis is a reminder of life’s essential unpredictability, and of the importance of gaining knowledge that we can apply in challenging situations. It is also reminding us of the importance of developing patience and understanding. As we withstand the pressures, frustrations and inconveniences of this period, we must also take time to reflect on those dreams that inspire us to persevere. We will get through this and emerge stronger than before.

In recent days I read an article about Sir Isaac Newton’s experience when he was sent home from Trinity College, Cambridge, during the Great Plague outbreak of 1665. Away from the university for more than a year, he wrote papers that laid the foundation for calculus, and he developed theories that would change human understanding of optics and the motion of objects.

This period will also lead to new ways of understanding the world and relating to each other. The message I want to share with my students and other young people is simple: stay true to your dreams and values. The world needs you now more than ever.

Freeman A. Hrabowski III is president of University of Maryland, Baltimore County. His email is hrabowski@umbc.edu.

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