This week, the Salem State community would be celebrating our 151st commencement. In person. With pomp. With circumstance. For the past 26 years, I have loved each SSU commencement ceremony, the pride and joy lighting up the faces of our students who work so hard for these moments.
Sadly, for all of the graduates of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has altered the world, sadly forcing graduation to be reimagined and deferred. While the faculty, staff and students at SSU have come together as never before to help each other through, we are sad for our students. Their accomplishments, however, are not diminished, and resilience and hope continue to overpower pain and fear. I congratulate every student who has earned this moment to shine along with their degrees. For one particular group of students, though, I write this as farewell as we may not see each other again.
In 2018, 13 Chinese students arrived at Salem State from Nanjing Normal University’s Ginling College. English majors, they are the first cohort of a program where they and other students in different majors study in China for their first year of college, spend two years at Salem State, and return to China for the last year of their undergraduate programs. Over 150 universities in the U.S. and China participate in this U.S.-China Dual-Degree Program. Since 2018, a second group of 16 from Nanjing arrived in 2019, and 19 more students are not sure if they can arrive next fall as international travel and global education are mired in uncertainty.
The SSU 2018 Nanjing cohort touched us all; they deserved the celebration that we were planning. Instead of the 151st SSU commencement ceremony, however, they and their fellow international graduates will be honored by President Keenan and Provost Silva via Zoom. In lieu of hugs and cake, speeches and smiles, they will be searching for the few scarce plane tickets that will get them back to China. It is my sincere wish for them, however, that they remember Salem as their home for two years, Salem State as a place that embraced them. Arriving two years go as wide-eyed newcomers, they leave us as accomplished scholars and sophisticated citizens of the world.
Our students from China have been remarkable in every way: smart, kind, resilient, talented, dedicated and motivated to excel. Once the scope of the pandemic became real in March, they transitioned to online classes with the rest of the SSU student body with patience and perseverance. They shared their masks sent from China with the staff of the Center for International Education to help keep us all well. Those who live in the dorms have eaten three meals a day quietly in their dorm rooms; those in apartments off campus are isolated from their friends and the SSU community, worried about their families in China.
One of the graduating English majors, Yining, presented a paper, virtually of course, as part of our recent Undergraduate Research Day. She discusses with vivid detail a trip that she took last year to the Tibetan autonomous region where she visited ancient Buddhist sites and taught English to young school children. She describes the trip as “pain together with happiness” after witnessing the remote and less-affluent lives of these children as compared to large bustling Chinese cities.
That’s how I feel now, Yining. The end of your time here is pain all mixed up with happiness for all of us. I am happy for your success and achievements, but I am sorry that you are all missing what should have been. We wanted to celebrate with you and your classmates. We wanted to honor you all for the papers and poems that you have written, the songs that you have sung, the films that you have made, the stories you have told, the many dumplings and meals that you have shared, and, yes, for the tears that you have cried. We have gotten to know all of you as part of our SSU family; we have been starstruck by your fortitude and resilience, and we really wanted to celebrate with you.
Know this: No matter what happens with the pandemic or the politics, you will all graduate as Salem State Vikings. You have allowed us to have a greater understanding China; you have helped your classmates and professors understand your culture, your hopes, and your dreams. You have shown the next students from Nanjing that it is possible to excel as English majors in Massachusetts, that your Chinese education prepared you very well, that your families took a risk worth taking by allowing you to spend two years with us.
So, on this week of commencement, let us all begin again. Take with you what you have learned and know that you leave behind a legacy of excellence, many moments of joy, and wonderful memories of the two years when our cultures merged at a remarkable point in time. These fantastic days are ending with pain, for sure, but I hope that the many shared moments of pure happiness as part of the SSU community will get us all though what may come next for our complicated world. Congratulations! We will miss you, but know that you will always be a part of Salem State University.
Julie Whitlow is the assistant provost for global engagement at Salem State University.