Classmates at the Graduate Institute reminisce on organizing an ad hoc graduation in the summer of 2020 for a dear friend who could not attend her official ceremony due to pandemic restrictions.
By Jarrod Zenjiro Suda
“You hear that Yalan is graduating from her bachelor’s program in Beijing?” asks Bram.
Yalan is enrolled under a joint Bachelor’s-Master’s programme and concurrently studies with us at the Graduate Institute. The peak of the pandemic has hit just as her Bachelor’s program comes to a close.
Friends have gathered around the dinner table for a few glasses of wine.
“Yeah, she can’t even fly back for the ceremony though,” I reply. “It’ll be virtual.”
We take sips from our cups as we watch the dusk of August rise across the banks of Lake Geneva. We turn to Interiano.
“We should hold a ceremony for her,” he grins. Our eyes light up at the idea.
“We can design a nice printed diploma and have speeches,” he continues.
Others begin to add on.
“I can be Emeritus Professor!” says Miguel. “I’ll write a keynote.”
“Oh! And I have materials to make a graduation cap,” Benda says.
We laugh into the night brainstorming ideas — assigning roles for each other and texting other friends to help bring this ceremony to life.
The day of graduation arrives without a cloud in the sky. As we gather in Parc des Bastions with our dresses and suits and ties, the venue welcomes us with its shaded meadows and melodic doves.
“Here is the schedule of ceremonies,” says Benda. She passes her home-printed programs to me and the crowd of invitees as they file in.
Scanning the program, I turn to Huertas and ask, “You have the portable speaker?”
“Yeah man,” he replies as he shows me his phone. “I’ve got Pomp and Circumstance and the Chinese National Anthem already queued up.”
We overhear someone from the crowd, “She’s here!”
We both turn our heads to see the woman of the hour. Yalan approaches in her traditional Chinese gown, adorned with white flower petals and neat green lace.
Benda runs over to Yalan with the makeshift graduation cap and tassel and gently places them atop her head.
Yalan smiles in astonishment. “I can’t believe you planned this much for me!”
Miguel — the Emeritus Professor — has the wind at his back as he proceeds down the marble steps of the open-air stage. Yalan and Commencement Speaker Bram follow gently behind and stop short of centre stage. The Chinese National Anthem begins to sound.
Qilai! Buyuan zuo nuli de renmen…
As Geneva slowly emerges from the darkness of pandemic-induced isolation, audience members and curious onlookers smile up at Yalan like beams of light. And the heartfelt speeches, the cap throwing, and the champagne popping that follow encapsulate a joy that we sustain into the night.
A sense of gratitude rises in me for having known these people and to have felt their goodness in this moment. And I rest assured that their goodness will reverberate wherever they may go — and feel a sense of joy knowing that Yalan has been given a memory that she will cherish for the years to come.
Jarrod is a finance writer for Monito.com and an alumni of the Graduate Institute. He publishes personal writing on Medium too, and currently works with two other alumni — Olivier and Risa — to start up a rural development business in Japan (which you can follow on Instagram @makers_on_a_mission or subscribe to the Makers on a Mission podcast).
Follow Jarrod on Medium for more short stories about the life-affirming people he meets on his travels, political philosophy, Japan, and other topics.