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One year after evacuating: Continuing the causes we started

<h6>Lilia Xie / The Daily Princtonian</h6>
Lilia Xie / The Daily Princtonian

“The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” writes the poet Elizabeth Bishop, “I lost two cities … two rivers, a continent. I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.”

Twelve months ago, in March of 2020, students evacuated campus. They scattered across the country and the world. For a time, they seemed to lose something every day: the items that could not make it home, the classes that could no longer meet, the people they could no longer see. And so students learned to master “the art of losing” — to muster the courage to say: “I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.”

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As we approach the one-year mark of the week our world seemed to stop, it may be all the more valuable to reflect on how we have persevered as a university through a year of constant loss. Looking back, we may not only draw strength from the messages of our earlier selves, but also from their optimism. One year later, we can recommit ourselves to solving the same problems we saw the COVID-19 pandemic lay bare.

We left campus in mourning. We made signs for the “end of the world,” wrote about “all the memories unmade, the photos untaken,” and watched as our friends worked to “make peace with senior year.” Our classmates from abroad struggled to decide whether to stay on campus or return home. “Everything I have,” said Elie Svoll ’22, “is here.”

Even still, students managed to turn reckoning into resolve. With clarity of purpose, students asked their communities to do more than simply survive. They asked to build back better. “After the storm passes, a new Princeton,” wrote Anna Hiltner ’23. It was July of 2020. There remained much more storm to come.

Facing such disaster, what is remarkable is not that we endeavored to make a “new Princeton.” What is remarkable is that we had never stopped. Even as the pandemic flung us across continents and oceans, severed us from our friends and families, and burdened us with finances and worry, we refused to stagnate. Instead, students of every class year did as they always did: call for reform. 

We saw the pandemic deepen every fissure across society. And so students and faculty continued to push for racial justice, to argue for economic relief, and to rally for medical care. Students sent a unanimous message: in the worst of times, when we are all in pain, what is needed most is empathy, grace, and the determination to right wrongs for all — not just for ourselves and those closest to us. We maintained this understanding throughout the past year, despite setbacks and sadness.

Now, we are no longer dominated by the crushing uncertainty that marked the start of the pandemic. Ten percent of the country has been vaccinated. Princeton currently plans for an in-person commencement for the Class of 2021. Should things continue to improve at their present course, many universities anticipate opening for normal operations in the fall, Princeton included.  

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Given this moment of tentative stability, it becomes worthwhile to recommit ourselves to the same political and social justice causes that we made at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Building back better started one year ago. One year later, we are able to plan for a future rather than fear it. One year later, we are wiser and warier, more experienced and more resourceful.

One year later, we realize that perhaps just as we have lost, we may also gain.   

David Palomino is a junior in the politics department from Los Angeles, Calif. He can be reached at davidap@princeton.edu.

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