One of the words of the decade undoubtedly is "pandemic". But I’m going to suggest another word that has proved much more positive and just as significant. The word is "resilient".
I am spending quite a bit of time this spring and summer in two of the loveliest buildings in Western Europe, Canterbury Cathedral and Rochester Cathedral, both in Kent in south-eastern England.
I’m chancellor of the University of Kent, which means that every summer I preside over degree ceremonies where some of the best and brightest young people from all over the world come to the cathedrals formally to be awarded their degrees, including PhDs.
Since Canterbury Cathedral can easily hold 1,200 people, these happy occasions are immensely enjoyable and impressive for those taking part, their friends and families. But that’s where the two words "pandemic" and "resilient" intervened.
As a result of the pandemic, universities around the globe cancelled their degree ceremonies in 2020 and 2021. Even worse, we had to cancel face-to-face teaching. Students from those years missed out on so many good things about university life, including the wonderful celebrations of an in-person graduation ceremony. In recent weeks, though, we organised new ceremonies in the cathedrals for thousands of students from those years to enjoy the kind of celebrations that they missed.
When the plan was first suggested, I was sceptical. Our students come from all over the world. I wasn’t sure if many of them or their families would spend time and money to fly to England to take part. My doubts were misplaced.
We have had some of the most wonderful, uplifting, raucous and jam-packed ceremonies I have ever attended (and I’ve been doing this for years). The students have been whooping and cheering and yelling with pride and happiness, and so have their families. And so incidentally have I.
In the past few days, I met students who travelled back to Kent from Hong Kong and other parts of China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, all across the Gulf, Syria, Iran, Nigeria, Ghana, Equatorial Guinea, Canada, the US, and all over Europe.
They have taken time out from their jobs and careers to return to a celebration of their achievements. Some have almost cried for joy. And that’s where the idea of human resilience is so impressive. We have lost loved ones in the past two years. We have lost time. But we have not lost hope and a sense of community.
The classes of 2020 and 2021 fill me with more hope for the future than I can easily express. Those that I have talked to spoke of trying to help each other through periods of loneliness or isolation; trying to concentrate on reading and other work, when so much of ordinary life had been disrupted; trying to contact friends and family. But then resilience kicked in.
So many students across the world not only helped each other, they volunteered to aid those who had to isolate. Some, in medical schools and in research institutions, also worked directly on questions about public health that the coronavirus outbreak raised. Others were involved in the production of personal protective equipment. But what struck me was the resilience of everyday life and a sense of community in the face of adversity.
One student spoke about the ways in which her life had changed – for the better – because she began to appreciate some of the little courtesies and pleasantries that she had forgotten.
In the past, she had little time for small talk. She was always in a hurry, scheduling her life at a fast pace. Suddenly during the pandemic, she took delight in some of the most mundane chores, including going to the supermarket or a few moments just walking in the fresh air. This seemed like a definition of resilience, the ability to cope with adversity and profoundly changing circumstances, and it made me think much more positively about the challenges of right now, from Ukraine and the cost of living crisis to food shortages and climate change.
We humans are rather good at creating problems for ourselves, but we are also good at solving them, especially when we work together. Throughout history, older generations have often looked at the ways of the young with a kind of disapproval, but if the generation of students I met this week are in any way representative – and I believe they are – then we should be optimistic about the future.
The wisest words I heard this week were from those 22 and 23 year olds who spoke of pandemic lockdowns as a time when they reflected on all the things that made life worth living, and how happy they were to reconnect with their old classmates. They are resilient. I admire them. And I can’t wait to meet the class of 2022 at their graduation ceremonies in a month’s time.