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No Rest for the Resilient: Graduating from the Pandemic to Protest

Dr. Jerell Hill

Approaching the summer of 2024, many had hoped this would be a joyful transition of finally emerging from the long shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic that disrupted all our lives for years. College and high school seniors looked forward to celebrating their accomplishments with family and friends at graduation ceremonies. Instead, for many young people, this moment has been overtaken by anguish, anger, and activism in response to the latest tragic incidents of racial injustice and protesting the conflict in Gaza.

Dr. Jerell HillDr. Jerell HillThe pandemic laid bare and exacerbated deep-rooted inequities in our society. Low-income communities and people of color suffered disproportionately from the virus itself and the economic devastation left in its wake. The work of Arundhati Roy's "The Pandemic as a Portal" highlights how the lockdown led to a humanitarian crisis as millions of migrant workers were left jobless and homeless, forced to walk hundreds of kilometers to their native villages. She contrasts these workers' plight with the government's actions, which downplayed the severity of the virus and focused on political maneuvers. Despite this bleak picture, Roy sees the pandemic as a potential catalyst for change, describing it as a "portal" between one world and the next. She argues that the virus has exposed the flaws of our current systems and offers us an opportunity to "rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves." The crisis was a chance to break with the past and imagine a new world that we must be ready to fight for and seize this transformative moment.

And now, just as a semblance of normalcy was starting to return, we are once again confronted by the conflict in Gaza. For the students, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college, this was supposed to be a time of hard-earned celebration. They persevered through online classes, quarantines, illness, loss of loved ones, financial hardship, and mental health challenges to reach the milestone of college graduation. But now their joy has turned to pain as they absorb the latest headlines and viral videos of Black lives cut short and nationwide protests on college campuses. With the potential for harm and chaos increasing due to disinformation, creating a just and equitable information landscape is of utmost importance. In the groundbreaking work, "Algorithms of Oppression," Safiya Noble highlights how commercial interest shapes outcomes and emphasizes how the profit-driven nature of search companies influences the information that is surfaced and prioritized, often at the expense of accuracy, diversity, and social responsibility. The potential for harm increases, and disinformation creates high levels of chaos and uncertainties that impact the current graduating class.

On the pre-scheduled weekends, many of them were set to walk across the stage in cap and gown, and they marched in the streets demanding justice and an end to violence in Gaza. The signs they carried bore the names of lives stolen, lives that mattered and should have had their graduations to celebrate. The same strength and resilience that propelled our students through the pandemic now fuel their righteous calls for change. Randall Robinson, the late bestselling author of The Debt, suggested that advocacy and activism are key to achieving significant change in justice, which will require sustained pressure from social movements and a willingness to challenge the status quo.

It is very discouraging to see another generation compelled to take on this burden to once again put their dreams and well-being on the line to demand the fundamental human rights and dignities they've been denied for far too long. Haven't they already had to grow up too fast, enduring traumas no young person should face? Now, instead of savoring their graduation, they must grapple with the grim realities of racism, confront their vulnerability, and fight for a future free from fear. But in sorrow, there lies immense pride and hope. These young voices represent our future where transformative change is possible. They have already proven their resilience, adaptability, and commitment to the community. The fortitude with which they faced a global pandemic will serve them well in the long struggle for justice.

To the Class of 2024, you have already overcome so much. Though your graduation day has been shadowed by collective grief, your accomplishments shine brightly still. You are powerful beyond measure. As you march forward, know that your teachers, families, and communities celebrate you. This is not the graduation they deserve but the commencement of a life's work to which they are called. In this pivotal moment, we must decide what kind of nation we want to be. Our graduates are ready. The question is, are we?

Dr. Jerell Hill, is dean of the School of Human Development and Education at Pacific Oaks College.

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