What This Millennial Rabbi Wants the Class of 2020 to Know

I’m not your commencement speaker, class of 2020, but I am someone who cares.

Dear Class of 2020,

I wish I could tell you that it will all be fine — that you’ll have a couple of rough years but you’ll catch up, get a good job, pay off your loans, buy a house by the time you hit 35, and be totally cool.

And hey, some of you will get lucky. You’ll land the right gig. You’ll finish grad school in the right year. You’ll have family with enough reserves to help you stay on your feet.

But some of you will be less lucky. You’ll take your well-earned degree and manage a part time retail gig. You’ll struggle to make loan payments. You’ll incur credit card debt. You’ll look at people who graduated a few years earlier and later and marvel at the financial differences.

I should know. I graduated from Macalester College in 2009. You probably don’t remember much about the financial state of the world then, seeing as most of you were in 5th grade, but things weren’t looking so hot. When I graduated with my top liberal arts school B.A., it was the worst job market in 25 years. I had one friend who got a full-time gig with benefits. Most of us ended up doing AmeriCorps, Teach for America (the complexities of that organization were less widely known back then), or Peace Corps. Others deferred loans further by going straight to graduate school. One of my close friends worked at the Tollhouse Cookie Store at the Mall of America. A roommate bounced from a Thai Restaurant to an afterschool program to community theater. My partner at the time ran a technology center at a library and was on EBT. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with those stories. It just wasn’t where we expected to end up out of school. A decade later, those stories have happy endings. The cookie seller works in Seattle. The roommate bought a house in his hometown. My ex-boyfriend is a math teacher.

As for me, I finished paying off the last of my undergrad loans a year and a half ago. (I still have rabbinical school loans, of course.) I live on my own in Brooklyn. My employer pays for most of my health insurance. I’m one of the lucky ones, on both a personal and systemic level. But I wasn’t able to save much in my 20s. I have almost nothing in retirement compared to friends who are just a few years older — in their late 30s as opposed to early 30s. (Yes, I know, dear 22-year-olds, that late 30s sounds old, but give it a decade and you’ll see where I’m coming from.) I will likely never catch up, financially, to people who graduated at a better moment.

I know, I know. This sounds bad, right? Why would I be telling you that graduating in a bad year means playing financial catch-up for the rest of your life?

Because people will tell you that — over and over. There will be articles written about your class. There will be retrospectives where people check in five and 10 years later and see how you’re faring. Some people will say that what’s happened to you isn’t your fault while others will accuse you of laziness and even of foolishness for choosing to go to college in the first place when the costs are so high and the rewards uncertain.

In a lot of ways, you have it rougher than I did. There weren’t jobs when I finished school, but there was community. We got to have our senior celebrations — the communal toasts and brunches and of course that special walk across a stage and a handshake, no hand sanitizer necessary. You won’t get that. That loss is terrible, and it can’t be made up. Even if, in a safer time, your class gathers in person and is recognized, it won’t be the same. That’s the brutal truth. You will never have the college graduation experience you should have had. Just like my class, and the couple of years around it, are known as the college graduates of the recession, you’re going to be forever known as the class of corona.

And yeah, it sucks. You might not be okay in the way that you imagined once upon a time.

But, if it’s any consolation, this experience will help you to operate with a deeper understanding of the interconnectivity of our world. I don’t know anyone who graduated with my class who isn’t concerned about society on a profound level, who doesn’t live with significant empathy, and who doesn’t believe in communal action for the good of all. That isn’t coincidence. It’s a reflection of what we went through as the youngest of adults trying to make sense of a world that wasn’t ready for us to step into it.

I don’t remember the name of my commencement speaker, but I remember that he was a Macalester graduate who worked for the Child Soldier response division of the UN. His speech was, naturally, bleak. He spoke about the world being a dark place where hope matters because it offers you the strength you need to act for good. I was quite the idealist in 2009, and I didn’t fully get it. I’m still an idealist in 2020, but I’ve learned to hold my idealism and my disappointment in the world side by side and to lean into hope without shutting my eyes to pain.

I know I’m not your commencement speaker, class of 2020, but I am a rabbi, and I’m someone who’s worked with college students and who cares. So, as a rabbi, I’ll leave you with a tiny bit of Torah from Chagigah 3b: v’kaneh l’cha lev mavin. “Acquire for yourself an understanding heart.” As you transition from students to alumni in this moment, it won’t be easy to keep your heart soft and open. But honestly? If you can, you’ll be able to better hold the world that needs you so much.

And as someone who was a college student not so, so long ago who graduated in a rough moment, here’s a little practical advice: Hang in there. When you get the chance to celebrate, take it. When you need to cry, cry. When you feel bad in a few years because your little sibling who graduated in a more economically sound year is doing “better” at 25 than you are at 30, take a breath. Remember what’s good. Remember that you share a bond with your class. Remember that money isn’t everything, even as money is necessary, and even as we live in a society that pushes us to think money matters most. And remember that the mainstream media loves to beat up on millennials and Gen Z, so, y’know, take the news with a grain of salt.

You got this, ‘20.

Sincerely,

(Rabbi) Emily Cohen, ‘09

Header image design by Grace Yagel. Graduation cap via vladwel / Getty Images.

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