Members of the Class of 2021 walk onto Powers Field.
Princeton University, Charles Sykes, Associated Press Images

Jimin Kang ’21
Photo: Seoung Hye Lee k’21
As the Class of 2021 departed from Princeton in a flurry of masks and colorfully trimmed robes, we did so bearing a unique badge of honor: a shared identity defined not only by the historic unusualness of our departure, but a new intimacy with how opposites can converge in unlikely ways.

Tradition and transformation collided in our socially distanced Commencement ceremony, the first of its kind. By the time our caps were thrown in the air, we had become accustomed — after two-and-a-half pandemic-era semesters — to a cohesion born from various divisions: the borders of Zoom quadrants, semesters spent in distant locations, and attempts to share crafts, rituals, and ceremonies through the internet. 

“I think the pandemic has changed the way we approach building community,” said Emma Parish ’21, class president for four years and a School of Public and International Affairs concentrator. “Our perseverance has better prepared us to stay connected as we enter the world as alumni and move to places across the globe.”

After the coronavirus pandemic scattered the class halfway through our junior spring, the Class of 2021 became more physically divided than it had ever been. While some of us returned to our childhood bedrooms, others remained on a near-emptied campus; when, in our senior fall, Princeton announced its dorms would only open to a select few, many brought the Orange Bubble elsewhere. 

Isabella Faccone ’21, an operations research and financial engineering concentrator, spent the fall living in Park City, Utah, with friends on Princeton’s climbing team. “We were able to live safely distanced and do the outdoor climbing that we’d all missed during the pandemic,” she said. “I think my time in Park City was one of the silver linings of the past year and a half.”

About 2,000 miles away, several of my friends and I found ourselves in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, sharing a three-story house. Despite our distance from Princeton, we were often reminded of its presence through gifts sent in the mail from our class officers — like snacks from our favorite Nassau Street establishments — and the unexpected discovery of a Princetonian neighbor.

“Our perseverance has better prepared us to stay connected as we enter the world as alumni.” — Class president Emma Parish ’21 

Reminders like these had many seniors asking: What could the latter half of our Princeton career have been, had the pandemic not hit? For some, it could have meant a full study-abroad experience, rather than one interrupted midway; for others, the opportunity to conduct experiments in laboratories rather than through computer-based simulations. It could have meant daily dinners at eating clubs and co-ops, a competitive sports season, and live performances in Alexander Hall. It could have meant keeping now-lost jobs, seeing the world while doing research, and getting out of our homes for the relative freedom of college. For the scores of seniors who elected to take a gap year instead of entering pandemic-era Princeton, it could have meant exiting FitzRandolph Gate with the same people they walked in with. 

Although many of these losses were permanent, their reversal felt possible once students were able to return to campus in the spring. As the weather warmed, life could return to some semblance of normal: On an average day one could find the football team training beside the stadium, groups of masked students gathered on Cannon Green for a picnic, and, at night, groups of seniors gathering at off-campus bars that, to some degree, fulfilled the role eating clubs used to play. Tradition and transformation met as dance groups rehearsed on Zoom and released their choreographies on YouTube rather than on stage, and scientists made explanatory videos instead of the usual posters to be presented in-person.

“While I do appreciate the ease of hopping on Zoom in my pajamas, I feel like I am more focused during in-person courses,” said Chris Flores ’21, a politics concentrator. In the spring, Flores participated in a hybrid course — taught in person, socially distanced — that was attended, during one special session, by Beto O’Rourke.

But the changes were never easy. As the world reeled from the coronavirus and the nation endured reckonings on race relations and political divisions, members of the senior class faced a difficult task. What did it mean to create our own narratives as the world’s narrative was shifting each day? How could we hold space for grief in our moments of celebration, and reckon with the fact that, for all the adaptations we were privileged to make, the illuminating parts of the “new normal” were not universal experiences for the entire student body, let alone the world? 

“I feel a deep sense of loss while reflecting on going to Princeton during a pandemic,” said Flores, who missed the communities of a co-op and the LGBT Center. Julia Walton ’21, an English concentrator, said that what she imagined would be “an especially happy year” became “a fairly monotonous one.” 

“Returning to Princeton, though, was an incredible relief,” she added.

For decades, every senior class has left Princeton carrying various markers of the end: beer jackets emblazoned with class years, diplomas, the looming sense that a group of familiar people, once scattered, will never be the same again.

For the Class of 2021, however, the loss is not without a greater consolation. Given everything that has happened to our senior years, after all, we have learned that distance is a challenge that can be overcome.