One year ago you watched friends, teammates, and family members struggle through the end of a senior year in the middle of a pandemic. You looked ahead to a senior year that you hoped would be better than the one experienced by your older peers.

Masks became a norm in your everyday life, some of you got sick and some of you watched the suffering of loved ones from afar. You witnessed a summer of unrest, protests growing as the video of George Floyd’s death finally made it impossible for the majority of the country to ignore the realities of race in America, realities that many of you were already far too aware of.

You hoped for a normal senior year, but even that seemed out of reach. Many of you returned to hallways full of masked classmates and teachers, most of you only seeing your friends’ faces during lunch or practices. Sports seasons were canceled or put on hold, Homecoming activities and traditions changed, and you faced continued uncertainty about prom and graduation activities as more of you became eligible for vaccines alongside your parents and grandparents.

To say it’s been a weird year and a half is an understatement.

But as weird as the last year and a half has been, as unpredictable as your senior year has seemed, as scary as the future may appear, there is significant hope on the horizon.

In the last year, you witnessed the largest electoral turnout in United States history, Many of you voted for the first time and became active participants in the electoral process.

In the last year, you witnessed a record-breaking vaccine rollout with new medical technology that scientists believe could now be effectively used to treat everything from cancer to HIV/AIDS. After two decades of development, a deadly virus that crippled the global economy was just what was needed to push innovation over the finish line.

In the last year, you witnessed the best, and the worst, of humanity as people had to make the decision between personal freedom and public health, and while there were plenty who failed that test, the majority of us did our best.

It is scary to realize that the world forever changed during your senior year. I remember watching the Twin Towers fall while watching the news from the classroom where I was student teaching during my senior year of college. My world would never be the same.

And neither will yours.

Because we’ve learned so much about how the world could be over the last year. In the year leading up to your graduation, the world changed. We’ve learned so much about how the world should be over the last year. We may hunger for normal, but we learned that “normal” wasn’t working for the majority of citizens and it wasn’t going to work for most of you as you looked to higher education, job training, future careers, and dreams of building families.

Dear Class of 2021, this is your chance to make a better world. This is your chance to say you want better for you, your peers, and your children. While it may seem like the last year and a half has been “the worst,” now is your chance.

Create, innovate, challenge the status quo, but also listen to the experiences of others. Accept that others may know more than you and seek their knowledge. While many of you struggled through a mess of a senior year, whether in high school or college, I’ve also seen the creativity that exploded from those of you who decided to use the time in isolation to do something for you. Cling to that spirit and hunger and don’t let people tell you that your dream is impossible. Remember that it took decades of development before mRNA vaccines would be given a chance to save millions of lives. Innovation doesn’t happen overnight.

Even when you find a job you love, there will always be parts of it that will feel like work. Don’t let that stop you from learning and growing and changing. You can change your mind. You can change careers. Work to create a world in which following your dreams and your calling is possible. Don’t forget that jobs are temporary but relationships are forever. Don’t live to work; work in such a way that you can still live your life and ensure that the same is possible for your peers.

Democracy is fragile. The American experiment and our role in the world is dependent on our determination to ensure that all American citizens have access to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Learn about the issues, pay attention to what is happening at the local level, and vote in every election. If you feel called to public service, don’t let people tell you that you are too young and inexperienced. But never let go of your principles.

Truth matters. Facts matter. And what hurts your neighbor also hurts you. If there is anything a global pandemic should have taught us is that we are only as strong as our weakest links. When the weakest amongst us suffer, it impacts all of us. Be a part of the solution and when people start complaining about everything that is wrong, ask “how do we solve it?” instead of piling on the bitterness.

Yes, Seniors, the last year has brought you unexpected challenges during a time when you are figuring out who you are and what you want your future to look like. You are heading out into a world that has changed, but the trajectory of that change is not out of your hands. I have seen what you are capable of. I have seen your compassion and concern for others. I have seen your creativity and desire for a better future. I have seen your passion and I’ve watched you march for change.

You’ve got this.

Sarah Styf | Accepting the Unexpected Journey

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