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Reflections on a Pandemic Commencement
By Emily Fox, WashU AB’21

As a Class of 2021 graduate, there are many things I missed out on. My last semester of college was online, interactions with my classmates were limited, and senior events were canceled. Yet, amid all the uncertainty of these unprecedented times, I am grateful for the faculty and staff at Washington University and the WashU Hillel community for defying the odds and making Commencement a unique and meaningful experience.

My graduation week represented the culmination of a year’s worth of missed experiences packed into a 5-day period. My parents flew in from California not only to celebrate, but also to help pack up my things, connect with my close friends and their families, and witness me getting carded at a bar for the first time since I turned 21. We explored the places in St. Louis I hadn’t been able to visit this year due to the pandemic while also celebrating the achievements of the Class of 2021.

I believe I speak for my fellow graduates when I say that Commencement was just as much for my parents as it was for me. When I saw my mom and dad frantically waving and snapping pictures as I walked into Francis Field, for once I wasn’t embarrassed by their enthusiasm. After the ceremony ended, they glowed as we took pictures by Anheuser-Busch Hall, my law school home for the next 3 years. Getting me through college was most certainly a victory for my parents as well.

Interacting with other students and their families, I saw the same look of pride in the eyes of their parents. This was especially true at Hillel’s Commencement activities. Hillel staff members connected with so many graduates and their parents over two days at multiple receptions. I know my parents were so thrilled to meet Hillel’s amazing staff. They spoke at length with Hillel Executive Director, Jackie Levey, and Board Chair, Penny Alper, about how grateful they are for the loving community that WashU Hillel provided me. When I came back to work at Hillel after graduation, the first thing both Jackie and Penny said to me was, “We loved meeting your parents! They are so proud of you.”

We students often overlook the pride our parents have for us. The Commencement opportunities at Hillel helped me truly appreciate just how much my parents’ pride impacts the ways people see and interact with me. The compassion and support with which my parents provide me will never go unnoticed again. And, from the interactions I saw between other students and their parents, I think my peers ended their Commencement weekend feeling the same.

I also had the privilege of working at Hillel the night before the Class of 2020 Commencement ceremony. The parents of these graduates had the same sparkle in their eyes as I’d seen in so many parents the weekend before. Delaying a year had no impact on the excitement these parents and students felt in being able to finally celebrate their accomplishments at WashU—catching up on time they missed and celebrating the amazing strides their graduates made over the course of this past year.

At the end of the night, I witnessed one of the most meaningful moments of both Commencement weekends. Under the string lights of Hillel’s tented outdoor patio, the graduates and their families embraced each other as a community to close Shabbat and usher in a new week, singing the beautiful Havdallah blessings. Listening to their harmony, I felt an overwhelming sense of appreciation for WashU, and for WashU Hillel specifically, for creating such a special community whose intimacy and love for one another lasts, regardless of how much time has passed.

I didn’t know beforehand that Commencement festivities carried such a deep meaning. My graduation from WashU gave me the opportunity to reflect on my last four years and understand just how much I am grateful for. My Commencement ceremony may have only been 45-minutes, distanced from my friends in 80-degree weather on a turf field, but the events of the weekend left me with a profound understanding of the incredible community and network I will always have, and the pride I feel to be a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis.