Imagine a mother and father looking down at their child. A beautiful, round-faced baby with bright, eager eyes. The parents’ eyes are soft with love — and filled with visions for this little child’s future. Those visions reach back across generations to a time when people who looked like them could not attend college — much less graduate. Or perhaps these visions reflect their own dreams — realized or unrealized. This little infant represents a bright future and the culmination of generations of hope.

A few decades later, that child has now completed their college education. Crossing the stage at commencement, that child is celebrating so much more than the earning of a degree. They are celebrating the dreams their families and communities have had for them since their days as beautiful, round-faced babies.

Unfortunately, for the Class of 2020, that pinnacle moment has been put on hold. Tens of thousands of students across the nation have seen their graduation experience put on pause thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic that is sweeping our globe. Perhaps it feels foolish to mourn the postponement of an event when there are so many other losses in the world; however, graduation day is more than just an event — it is the signature moment that marks the transition from the college experience to “the real world.”

For four years, these students have called themselves the Class of 2020. They have undoubtedly envisioned themselves decorating their caps to reflect their gratitude to their family and friends for supporting them. They have anticipated tears of joy and cheers of elation as their parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews witness them receiving that hard-earned piece of paper. And they have known — whether they could articulate it or not — that commencement has symbolism beyond the moment itself. It is a moment that grandmothers extend their lives to see. It is a moment that families travel across the country to witness. It is a moment that cannot be replicated, particularly for first-generation college graduates.

The Class of 2020 is entering a world that is tremendously different from the one that faced the Class of 2019. In this time of uncertainty, it would be easy to feel fear and anxiety. This emergency is unlike any other we have seen in our lifetimes. I am hopeful that this experience — global in its scope — will help us all better understand how interconnected we are. That is a lesson worth learning and the Class of 2020 will be the first college graduates to step into “the real world” having seen that fact become tangible. I know they are ready for whatever is next.

At Winston-Salem State University, we tell our students that they are the designers of their futures. They leave our halls armed with the skills they have gained through coursework and co-curricular activities; the relationships they have built with classmates, faculty and staff; and the leadership abilities and confidence they have cultivated. They move into the world ready to transform it. They will be pioneers, entrepreneurs and scholars. They will engineer solutions to systemic poverty, address health inequity and launch businesses.

In our lifetimes, our world has never so desperately needed optimists and trailblazers. When this crisis is over, it will be the men and women who have grit and hustle who forge our future. They will invent new industries and reimagine our society. The Class of 2020 is uniquely positioned to harness their educations and turn the skills they have learned into exactly what our society needs tomorrow. These brilliant graduates will create a world we can only imagine. Against the backdrop of a global public health emergency, they are our future. They will move into the unknown with a spirit of innovation and creativity. I cannot wait to see what they become.

Elwood L. Robinson is the chancellor of Winston-Salem State University, a historically black constituent institution of the University of North Carolina.

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