Commencement 2020 and that lingering public announcement

This post was originally published in The Daily UW on 17 April 2020.

It’s come to this time. While COVID-19 has shown some of the ugliest things that can happen during a global emergency, many people rose up to the challenge of beating down the pandemic. From the advocates in White Center who spoke out against King County’s decision to locate a quarantine site in the neighborhood, to public transport unions who fight to maintain safe worksites for bus and train operators. From doctors, grocers, cops, researchers, and many more who have a direct stake in public safety and health, to folks of privilege who uphold their simple responsibility of staying home and away from others (physically). Everyone is playing a part in our collective mission to beat the virus.

The work I do at the University of Washington continues in a much different form because of the pandemic. I continue to do what I do because after the pandemic, we still need to fight for racial equity in our institutions. We still need to revitalize Lushootseed and tons of other Indigenous languages. We still need peer educators, research families, and mentors who help to make academia and workplaces more welcoming to underrepresented communities. The pandemic reaffirmed yet again how much stronger our society would be if Indigenous leaders led our institutions. As a student with deep training in anthropology, I can tell you that it doesn’t matter what social problems come up. The need remains one and the same: We need a human dimension to our solutions on these issues.

I mentioned casually on social media about how COVID-19 would become a story we would later tell our grandchildren. That sentiment still resonates with me. But rather than a story that is told in a feature documentary,  a chapter book written by journalists, or a history lesson taught in public schools, it is a multitude of stories written (or spoken) by you and I, and everyone else. The stories are those of personal triumph, of the flaws of our institutions, of our struggles, and of the ways each of us learned to overcome them. We each will have stories that would be told and felt and celebrated differently by different people. That’s part of what makes each of us human.

When I learned of the UW’s decision to move the 2020 commencement online, I too felt downtrodden. Since 2012, I had dreamed of the year 2020 when I would get to graduate from the UW and celebrate with my family. It’s hard to believe that my longtime dream was so damn close to coming true. It’s also hard to believe how much I grew throughout my mischievous yet difficult high school and college years. But while much of what we know as “commencement” is lost to the pandemic, I’m dreaming of something bigger. When I walk across that stage in 2021, I’m not celebrating an academic milestone; I’m celebrating stories. I’m celebrating the hardships you and I faced, the ways we overcame them, and how much stronger our communities have become because of our collective contributions. I’m celebrating the relationships we made and the boundaries we broke in spite of the pandemic. I’m celebrating everything that makes us human.

With the pandemic ravaging our globe, celebration just isn’t a priority for me at the moment. As a graduating student who is still dealing with the effects of losing both parents to cancer, I’m trying hard to look for jobs and housing that would support me through the aftermath of this ordeal. That lingering public announcement I have wanted to make since winter quarter will have to wait. There’s no telling if or when it will happen. I see these delays in celebration as an opportunity to reflect on my hardships and emotions, to continue the important work that has brought me to the present moment, and to bring my communities and family closer to my heart. I invite you and everyone close to me to do the same things for themselves.

Fa’aumu Kaimana

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