Podcast transcript: A tale of two classes 50 years apart
Like this year’s seniors, the Class of 1970 had its final semester disrupted. Image: Christine Daniloff, MIT
Like this year’s seniors, the Class of 1970 had its final semester disrupted: Fifty years ago, growing unrest over the Vietnam War led to the cancellation of MIT classes. In the podcast and transcript below, Karen Arenson ’70 and senior Bahrudin Trbalic share their experiences.
When Class of 1970 president, Karen Arenson, graduated from MIT, the Institute and the world had dramatically changed in a few short years. And like today’s graduating seniors, their future felt full of uncertainty.
We survived and we ultimately found our ways and they will too, even if it doesn’t feel that way now. If any college graduates make it, and I know they will, it will be MIT graduates. They have incredible skills as well as tenacity.
Well, millions of college students have been sent home during this pandemic.
At colleges and universities around Boston, precautions are being taken.
That they’re canceling classes or they’re going to online learning, not just for a couple of weeks, but for the rest of the year.
On March 10th, 2020, MIT took drastic measures in response to the growing concerns over the COVID-19 outbreak. It announced all classes would be transitioning to online instruction for the remainder of the semester and that students should not return to campus after Spring Break.
These steps were clearly going to disrupt the usual patterns of the Spring semester for thousands, but perhaps none more than those who had been working for the past four years to be able to walk onto Killian Court, flip their Brass Rats around and join the ranks of Institute alumni as graduates of MIT.
I was at the West Coast visiting prospective graduate schools. I went there a week before everything was shut down. It seemed then that nothing would change, but I was wrong.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Class of 2020 lost the opportunity to experience the remainder of their senior year on campus with their friends and classmates. For senior, Bahrudin Trbalic, watching the beginning of the U.S. quarantine affect the Institute from the West Coast added an extra layer to the unease as he couldn’t be there with his peers for mutual support and ultimately, to say goodbye.
So I was far away from my friends when I learned the news and the worst thing was the fact that I knew that once I’m back on campus, my friends will be gone. That was kind of a heavy experience for all of us.
But, MIT and its students are no strangers to large scale social unrest. In fact, it was exactly 50 years ago when the Spring semester for the Class of 1970 was also disrupted.
Strike! Strike! Strike! Strike! [Crosstalk 00:02:55], Strike! Strike! Strike! Strike!
Leave this area immediately.
On April 30th, 1970, President Nixon announced that the United States, which had been in Vietnam for years was now about to invade Cambodia. That ignited even fiercer anger among those who were against the war.
Within a couple of days, campuses began to vote to go on strike. At MIT, we were still debating the issue on May 4th when we received word that four student antiwar protesters at Kent State University in Ohio had been shot and killed by the National Guard.
And all of a sudden I heard them shooting.
The guards will open fire on the students.
What the investigators have to determine then is whether indeed there was a sniper and whether the guard was justified in firing its weapons or whether [crosstalk 00:03:57].
The MIT faculty convened in Kresge Auditorium the following day, and by a large majority voted to cancel classes for the rest of the week. We were fortunate that we were able to remain on campus and we did have a graduation ceremony, although only 60% of my class attended it. And we asked the president not to speak. Instead, we had two minutes of silence.
Commencement at MIT is a special event for all involved, students, their families and friends, faculty and staff, where typically we gather by the thousands, one community on Killian Court, to hear the names of graduates. This year, we come together through our screens to acknowledge the work and singular dedication that a degree from MIT embodies.
The virtual commencement is the best we can get in the current circumstances. I was hopeful that life would resume by now, but we cannot alter what’s not in our hands. This is a challenge we have to go through. Just know that whoever would be proud seeing you at the real graduation ceremony is even more proud to see you right now fighting through the tough times.
A silver lining of this online commencement is that I will be able to spend the commencement day with my family, which otherwise I would be there without them. Obviously, I will miss my friends, but current technology enables us to chat and see each other on a daily basis and that we will soon see each other in life.
Our 50th reunion has indeed been disrupted. I do feel sad, but it’s a small problem compared to everything else that’s taking place. We began to send emails about the irony of our class reunion being knocked off course when our senior year and our final semester had been. But, we have tried to make the best of it.
It just shows us how little influence do we have on the future. We can do our best and hope for the best, but then who knows what will happen to our generation in 50 years.
But, MIT’s ability to think on the fly, to innovate is part of its DNA. It’s what MIT is made for. It’s part of the Institute’s history. It’s currently on display in the many projects tackling the COVID-19 pandemic. And it’s woven into the fabric of MIT’s Class of 2020 as seen in their accomplishments and challenges met thus far.
This doesn’t feel like a proper end. Throughout our studies, we have imagined that we will land on a grand stage in Killian Court in front of our families and friends, not on an emergency flight home. That shouldn’t be the end. However, as I like to remind my friends, the graduation ceremony would be only the icing on the cake. We still have the cake. We still have the good memories, the awesome friends and the truly wonderful moments we will cherish for life.
Thanks for listening. You can find more audio content from MIT on Apple Podcast, Google Play Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Originally published on the MIT News website on May 27, 2020.
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