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Fourth-year students reflect on past adversity and future hopes ahead of graduation

Overcoming challenges of arriving after the Unite the Right rallies and the unprecedented nature of the pandemic is no small feat, but this class has done just that, and more

Although experiencing tragedy both upon entering and leaving the University, the class of 2021 has found ways to make the most of every situation — speaking out, connecting, learning and planning to take their next steps.
Although experiencing tragedy both upon entering and leaving the University, the class of 2021 has found ways to make the most of every situation — speaking out, connecting, learning and planning to take their next steps.

The University’s graduating Class of 2021 first came to Grounds in 2017, immediately following the Unite the Right white supremacist rallies of Aug. 11 and 12. Four years later, these same undergraduate students are graduating amidst a global pandemic which has proved fatal for over 500 thousand people in the U.S. alone. 

These framing incidents are tragic to say the very least, but the Class of 2021’s adversity throughout their often unconventional time on Grounds is a testament to both their strength as a community as well as all of their hard work. The class will celebrate with in-person ceremonies starting Friday, with Final Exercises extending throughout the weekend.

Although the time leading up to graduation is often spent looking ahead towards future plans, especially in a final year plagued by irregularities, many fourth years have found these last days on Grounds to be a time of deep reflection and a chance to look back upon their years spent at the University.

Fourth-year College student You-Jin Yeo, for example, was heavily influenced by her time as a career peer educator at the University’s Career Center  and as an admissions intern in the Undergraduate Office of Admissions. From her interactions with students across all years of learning during these internships, she has garnered plenty of advice on how a student can truly capitalize upon their time on Grounds, which she happily shares with new students.

“For first years, I want to say explore,” Yeo said. “Try as many new things as possible. Focus on exploring and trying new things because that's the only free time you actually have. You have to sort of start settling down for a certain major [after your first year], so explore.”

Yeo recently accepted a job offer in an unexpected field of study — she switched from applying for jobs at large corporations to government work within the Department of Justice — which prompted her to generate advice for older students, as well. For Yeo, fluidity is one of the most important concepts to understand as students grow closer and closer to the grasps of the workforce.

“Do not feel like one specific career, community or job is the one for you,” Yeo said. “You never know if down the road, something else will have been more suited for you … there's just so many careers out there that we are not aware of, so don't settle and continuously have an open mind.”

Furthering Yeo’s emphasis on exploration, fourth-year Nursing student Jae Guerrant highlights the true importance of finding joy-inducing interests outside of a standard classroom environment.

As an undergraduate who was able to find happiness within Salsa Club, Mixed Race Student Coalition and his fraternity, Pi Lambda Phi, Guerrant emphasizes the sheer significance of finding a niche or group that makes you happy, and he recognizes that joy can truly be found anywhere.

“I find that it's so important to be able to find your joy where you can grasp your joy,” Guerrant said. “Within that, find it within your friends … as I end this chapter and as others begin their chapter or are right in the middle, it's about how you keep to yourself and stick to your guns and how to stay resilient through all of it, and make sure you don't do it all by yourself.”

Similar to Guerrant, fourth-year Education student Joseph Na shared that college students shouldn’t shy away from bold, risky choices as a result of fearing imperfection. 

“College is the one place where you can make mistakes and learn from them,” Na said. “I always stand by the motto that ‘your mistakes are your greatest mentor’ — the things you learn from the most — so I think to learn the most from college you have to make mistakes, and to make mistakes you have to be bold in your decision making.”

Likewise, after enrolling in the kinesiology program four years ago without any prior knowledge of the distinct operations that separate it from other majors, Na decided to continue with the program. Four years later, he will be attending the University’s graduate program to pursue his master’s in athletic training following graduation.

This experience from uncertainty to certainty has taught Na lessons that he, and others, can take to heart moving forward.

“Even though I am uncertain about the future and what it holds for me, I'm not worried about it,” Na said. “So far my past has shown me that every decision I make, even if I'm uncertain about my decision, has been beneficial in a certain way by showing me what I should do next.”

Another one of these moments of uncertainty was Na’s first experience coming to Grounds in 2017, following the tragic Unite the Right rallies in Charlottesville. Similar to other first-year students preparing to start their first year at the University, Na was filled with doubt, exacerbated by the potentially different experiences he could face as a Korean American.

“I'm not from Virginia, I'm from Maryland,” Na said. “The only thing I knew at the time was that it was a top-five public university. Once I heard about these movements and riots in Charlottesville, I think I began to wonder if I made the right decision … being someone that is not Caucasian … I wondered how it would affect me, too.”

As a Black and Filipino American, Guerrant also felt personally affected by both the Unite the Right rallies four years ago, as well as by the recent rise in Asian hate crimes spurred by the pandemic. However, from growing up in the rural parts of southwest Virginia, Guerrant has a lot of prior experience with race-fueled hatred, allowing him to understand the “why” of these violent attacks.

“I am unpopular in this belief of being able to understand and think on the other side of the fact of ‘why,’” Guerrant said. “[But] you have to look beyond yourself and see where they're coming from too because yes, they were bad, those were bad people 100 percent, but we’ve got to see up the chain of what made them bad people. That's what I believe in.”

The University’s class of 2021 will be the final group of undergraduate students on Grounds to have collectively experienced these rallies firsthand in the community. Entering the University directly after these events was anything but comforting for students who were mere first years at the time.

However, the University’s response quickly assured many that the school in no way supported the violent actions of the various alt-right leaders who gathered in Charlottesville and ultimately wreaked havoc on the community that day. The rallies on Aug. 11 and 12 had been sparked by controversy surrounding the removal of Charlottesville’s Confederate statues — specifically the Robert E. Lee statue in Market Street Park, which can presently be removed as early as June 7. Counter-protestors locally and beyond all united together against the oppressive efforts by far-right groups in the summer of 2017, collectively responding through events like the Aug. 21 student-organized March to Reclaim Our Grounds and Sept. 24 Concert for Charlottesville shortly afterwards.

“I remember in some of my classrooms the professors would address those issues as well, even if their class had nothing to do with politics,” Na said. “I thought the University community was very clear in what they're for and what they're not for.”

As fourth years looking back on their time at the University in relation to the pandemic’s vices and the dark notion surrounding the 2017 rallies, Guerrant emphasizes the long-term positive outlook that he and his fellow graduating classmates can benefit from as they prepare to don their caps and gowns.

“It's about how you go forward with it,” Guerrant said. “I think a lot of people might go forward in the class of 2021 who might not have it all together yet, but I think we learned a lot of lessons and there's a relief with this graduation there, too … The best thing I can say is that it's all a journey and we're all trying to figure it out. I know there's people in my class as well who don't have it all figured out and that's all OK.”

University career counselor Hunter Finch adds onto Guerrant’s advice about warranted uncertainty. Having helped myriads of students across the years with post graduate plans, Finch believes that one of the best things nervous graduates can do is allow themselves some grace in the face of big change.

“I don't think anyone who graduates isn't at least a little bit nervous about a huge life change,” Finch said. “You've been in school your entire life, most of you, and then all of a sudden you switch to a non-school …  cut yourself some slack, it's going to be a slight adjustment. [Know] how flexible and resilient you've been in the last year and a half.”

In preparing for their allotted day of Final Exercises, fourth years are provided a final chance to look back on how far they have come as students and as community members. Although experiencing tragedy both upon entering and leaving the University, the Class of 2021 has found ways to make the most of every situation — speaking out, connecting, learning and planning to take their next steps.

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