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Sitting with strangers: Community and closure for the Class of 2021

<h5>Princeton University 2021 Commencement</h5>
<h6>Charles Sykes &nbsp;/ Associated Press Images for Princeton University</h6>
Princeton University 2021 Commencement
Charles Sykes  / Associated Press Images for Princeton University

We were all accustomed to sitting with strangers in our first days on Princeton’s campus. The newness of the place demanded some degree of shameless self-promotion in order to build our networks of peers beyond those we would eventually encounter in classes and extracurriculars. During first-year orientation, we found ourselves constantly surrounded by strangers, but still willing to look past the unfamiliarity to delve into some of life’s most important questions, like: “did you do OA or CA?” In those early days, sitting with strangers was the norm.

As we entered our sophomore year, many of us had already begun carving out our niches on campus. We started taking on responsibilities in our extracurricular groups, and our interactions with strangers became more sparse and more targeted. We ran after strangers passing through Frist Campus Center to promote our shows; we complimented strangers on the Tiger Confessions Facebook page (or tore them down in the comments section); we swayed alongside strangers at our hard-earned bonfire.

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As juniors, suddenly, we were the ones bickering the bickerees and evaluating the auditionees; we were the ones writing the op-eds and making the winning shots. First-years and sophomores looked to us for advice on classes and work-life balance, and we overconfidently delivered. We met plenty of new people — but in general, we found comfort in the pockets of campus we had defined for ourselves. We didn’t need to lean into the friend-making frenzy we had embraced in our first year as Princetonians.

Then, the world shut down. And we were left scattered across it, impossibly far apart with no reunion in sight.

The new digital landscape created some unexpected opportunities for connection, like Houseparty and the “Zoom Memes for Self Quaranteens” Facebook group. But the realities of two semesters fully online, stripped of the wholeness of the community we had envisioned ourselves inhabiting long before our letters of admission had arrived in the mail, were hard to bear. Many of the things that bound us had dissolved; no longer could we walk out of class with our cute seat neighbor or bump into former Zeemates at Late Meal. The serendipity that fragmented our days at Princeton was largely gone; every meeting was scheduled, every virtual encounter was premeditated, and every conversation was ended abruptly by the push of a red “Leave Meeting” button.

Virtual Princeton hurt the Great Class of 2021. We lost some of our classmates to gap years. We lost many of the traditions that we had looked forward to experiencing as seniors. Even those of us living on campus lost some of the physical dimensions of Princeton that made our lives here meaningful. The Coffee Club. The public pianos. The eating clubs. Even Murray Dodge, dedicated to the fine art of being open, was shuttered by the new public health regime.

For many, the fragmentation muddled the process of finding closure at Princeton. Months spent away from campus brought us closer than ever to post-graduate life, forcing us to consider what it would mean to let go of the place and many of the people — to set our eyes on the future beyond FitzRandolph Gate sooner than we had expected.

Of course, leaving is always hard. In a world without the pandemic, we still would have struggled to find the words to share with our friends; we still would have wished for a few more days to bask in the comfort of our favorite spots on campus; we still would have wondered if there was another bucket list item we should have crossed off, another acquaintance we should have texted, another building we should have wandered through before our departure.

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Undoubtedly, though, the circumstances of this year have changed the dynamic of our path from students to alumni. Senior year of college is usually a time when people lean into the connections they’ve built over the past three years — to the people and to the place. Our senior year was marked by the beginning of a rebuilding process, back toward normalcy, but not quite there yet.

But that process, strangely enough, has given birth to something else beautiful. In pursuit of the stuff that has defined Princeton as our home for these past four years, we’ve harnessed the value of the little moments that serve as the foundation of community. We’ve exchanged knowing glances as the five-minutes-to-closing bell blares in Firestone at 1:55 a.m. We’ve posed for selfies at local businesses together during ’21 in Town events. We’ve joined spontaneous Spikeball matches and frisbee games on Poe Field. We’ve populated dining halls, lounges, and study rooms, and we’ve occupied hundreds of black adirondack chairs in lawns across campus, six feet apart but more appreciative than ever to be only six feet apart. As seniors, in many ways, we have begun to sit with strangers again.

And though the end of our time as college students looks radically different from the experience we imagined inheriting, our relationships within this community are in many ways just beginning. For generations, Princeton alumni have gathered across the world and returned to the campus beyond graduation, embracing each other with the same mutual commitment that has bound us as undergraduates. They’ve found meaningful ways to stay connected to their classmates and even to build relationships with Princetonians from different eras. Because of this continuity of community, perhaps we won’t have to wonder about finality in such stark terms; perhaps we can continue to sit with strangers for many years to come.

As we venture into the world beyond Princeton, let us always remember the unbelievable strength and resilience of the community we’ve built together. And let us always remember how communities like this are made. It all starts with one question: “OA or CA?”

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Remy Reya ’21 is an alumnus of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. He can be reached at 17reya@gmail.com, or you can angrily tweet at him @RemyReya.

A shortened version of this piece also appears in The Daily Princetonian commencement issue

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