Op-ed: To the Class of 2022: A case for optimism in “unprecedented” times

Jacob Orgel is a graduate of the Class of 2022.

My fellow graduates:

I believe one word has defined our educational experience over the past several years more than any other – “unprecedented.”

The word is all over the news. Commentators use it to describe everything from the COVID-19 pandemic that forced us into virtual classrooms for more than a year to the leak of the Supreme Court’s opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which foretells attacks on disenfranchised groups’ legal rights that go well beyond abortion access, even threatening marriage equality and constitutional protection for contraception.

Having spent the past three years as a law student at GW Law in D.C., the Jan. 6 insurrection sticks out as another example of the “unprecedented” nature of our time in school. The attack shuttered the Foggy Bottom Campus for the day and prompted members of the National Guard to patrol University property in the following weeks. The insurrection has cast a dark cloud over our nation as we continue to grapple with its implications for our democracy and the horrid racist and antisemitic slogans the rioters championed.

The evidence is clear that we are living in unprecedented times, and yet, I am profoundly optimistic about our future. I believe the challenges we face instill the insights and provide the opportunities for us to leave the world a better place than we found it.

I get pushback from my friends when I say it, but I consider myself an “American optimist.” I don’t believe in blind optimism. Instead, I believe in a well-founded optimism flowing from the inspiration of my peers and an appreciation for the symbolic weight that my family’s name carries on my law school diploma.

My grandfather was the lone Holocaust survivor in his family. When he arrived in the United States at roughly the same age I am now, he had nothing to his name and no marketable skills. Despite these roadblocks, he found a job and laid the foundation for my family. He took great pride in sending his children, including my mother, to receive an education – a privilege he never had. He believed that in America, his new home, education presented an indispensable opportunity to learn about the world, to engage with a network of individuals with diverse experiences and to receive the toolkit to chart one’s own path in life.

When my mother met my father, who also emerged from an upbringing of little means to become a first-generation college student, they connected in part over their desire to provide a better life for their children. They raised me to embrace education and encouraged me to embark on my own academic journey. Twenty-two years later, while crossing the stage at my law school graduation, I felt a deep appreciation for my ancestors, my parents and the values they passed on to me. In the spirit of their principles, I developed a professional skill set while learning to see the world through the eyes of my peers of different backgrounds and ideological predispositions.

I only shared a few years of life with my grandfather – he passed away when I was three. But just as he was proud to support his children as they went to school and learned to navigate the future, I am now proud to carry forward the baton of his legacy and fight for its modern manifestations.

My grandfather came to America in search of the prophesized “land of opportunity,” but my family has come to understand that America’s true promise – a promise still unrealized, but continuously pursued – is as a land of equal opportunity. This proposition entails combatting the ignorance and bigotry underpinning the injustices perpetrated against my ancestors and breaking down the barriers to access to the American Dream from which my family benefitted.

As I have gone through my educational experience, I have been taken by the number of my classmates that share these values. Statistically speaking, my generation is more accepting than any to come before it on a variety of issues including countless forms of diversity and marriage equality.

Forged in the fire of this unprecedented, tumultuous era, young people have developed the fortitude to fight for progress. My generation has led the charge behind the ongoing movement for racial equity. We helped orchestrate the Women’s March, which became an annual call for gender equality in cities across the country after it began in 2017. We turned out to vote in record numbers in the 2020 election to support candidates who promised to fight for our values in Congress and the White House. There is a resounding consensus across my generation, a common thread fueling these movements – we demand a better America, an America that delivers on its promise of equal opportunity, inclusivity and fundamental human decency for all.

Looking around at my graduation ceremony, the diversity which my graduating class represented inspired me. I saw a group of now-lawyers graduating from a university whose namesake never imagined many of its members would be present in his country – a group that will now lead that country into its next chapter.

As the Class of 2022, we enter a world in unprecedented disrepair. But in these unprecedented times, I have the utmost confidence that we will rise to the stakes of the moment, join together in fighting for the realization of the American dream and ourselves become unprecedented as a force for positive change.

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