As the dust settles from this seemingly infinite year, as blue Zoom hyperlinks and blue surgical masks become artifacts of the past, it is hard not to pause and ask — what will be left? As a nation, as a university and as individuals we are left faced with harsh realities that the pandemic has brought from estivation. The gaping inequalities that cut across fiscal, racial, cultural and place-based categorizations have only been broadened, questions of access and equality are at the forefront of education and mental health and wellness cannot be brushed aside as a secondary priority. This coming fall semester is an opportunity not to return to normalcy, but to progress to a new and better normal.
Stepping into the role of the Student Member of the Board of Visitors, tasked with representing all undergraduate, graduate and professional and Wise students, I find myself reflecting upon the common threads that tie us together beyond the colors of navy and orange. What unites us all is this university, yes, but more importantly, it is our agency within the University community that binds us together. Me, you, us — we are the beating heart of this community, we have the power to shape this place, and with this agency comes a great responsibility. A responsibility to one another to be kind, to think of others, to choose to show empathy and to listen.
So in asking what will be left after this pandemic, the answer is us — we will be left. Together, we have gone through one of the most challenging periods in recent history. We have experienced loss and grief beyond words, but we have made it through and we are stronger for it. Let this struggle and challenge not be a source of division, but one that allows us to reflect upon these hardships and look to shaping a future that is brighter and better, for years to come. Let us find strength to support one another as we navigate this coming semester.
It is easy to let ourselves be defined by our differences — in fact, it is commonplace. As a child of first-generation immigrants living in small-town West Virginia, difference was not a choice but one that spoke for me without my lips parting — the earthen color of my limbs seemed to tell the world all they needed to know. Difference is salient and powerful, yes, but it is not all-encompassing. At a university, the way we choose to spend our time and the things we are passionate about can easily define us. However, it does not tell the whole story. The hard work comes in looking beyond this, in choosing to peer behind the curtain and see that behind the scenes there is a common grain of humanity and struggle and joy that — as students of this great university and of the human experience — we share. This is not to be overly dramatic or to talk from a pedestal, but to remind you to never lose sight of that humanity. To pause and look beyond the phone screens or knee-jerk reactions and to remember at the end of the day we are all just people.
There is a balance to strike in appreciating our community as a whole and celebrating the wealth of diversity that constitutes it. I want to reiterate the importance of each individual. Your voice matters, your story matters — no more and no less than those next to you. And so, as I fill my role June 1, I will be here to listen and learn as best as I can. And I urge you to do the same — listen to one another and celebrate the inexhaustible variety of life that shapes this magical place. Soon, we may be surrounded by people who hold different opinions, who may have had a drastically different past year than you, who may believe in different things. But soon, we will be back on Grounds, waiting in line for the dumplings truck, sitting — or trying not to slip — on the hill at football games, bumping elbows with new friends in class. Let this place unite us. Returning to Grounds, we can choose to place ourselves in echo chambers, to focus on what makes us different and never see past it, but we can also choose to see the beauty in our commonality, our humanity, in the endogeneity of the prospering of the University and us. The choice lies with us.
So as the dust settles from this seemingly infinite year, as blue Zoom hyperlinks and blue surgical masks become artifacts of the past, perhaps the better question to ask is — what will we do?
In the coming year, I want to be there for each and every one of you. Please don’t hesitate to reach out via email with any questions, concerns or if you just want to chat. If there is any way I can be helpful, do let me know. I am so excited to see you all back on Grounds this fall and can’t wait for this incredible year, made incredible by the amazing folks that y’all are.
Sarita Mehta is a fourth year in the College and the student member of the University of Virginia Board of Visitors.