Class of 2020 makes long awaited return to Grinnell

June 16, 2022 — More than 600 Grinnell College alumni from the classes of 2014 through 2021 will be returning to campus this weekend for their first large-scale get together since their graduation days. 

Young Alumni Weekend will provide a chance for alums to catch up and get reunited with classmates and the College. For one group, though, the occasion will provide additional meaning. The class of 2020 was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in immeasurable ways, including the loss of their final two months on campus and the inability to have an in-person Commencement ceremony.

Students say good bye after packing up their belongings to return home.
In this March 2020 photo, students say good bye after packing up their belongings to return home. Many in the class of 2020 have not returned to Grinnell until today.

The class of 2020 is invited back to Grinnell a day early to participate in two special events before joining their fellow Grinnellians for the rest of the weekend festivities.

Three alumni – Taylor Gaskins ’20, Sanah Suri ’20, and Calvin Tang ’20 – who are all returning to campus for Young Alumni Weekend shared some of their thoughts and memories from their final moments in Grinnell during March 2020 and what it will be like returning as alums more than two years later.

Hope in the darkest days

While she might not have known it at the time, the spring 2020 semester proved to be pivotal for Taylor Gaskins. The Spanish and English double-major, originally from Washington D.C., and a member of Grinnell’s final Posse Scholars cohort, is halfway through a Master of Divinity program in Atlanta at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. 

Taylor Gaskins ’20
    Taylor Gaskins ’20

As the winter gave way to early spring in 2020, she recalls the excitement of ‘this is it’ beginning to take hold including attending an African Caribbean Student Union Gala event that turned out to be one of the last big events that the Grinnell community had before the campus shut down. 

Gaskins decided she wanted to return to Washington D.C. to be with her family. With her mother working and studying part-time, she helped her younger sister and brother adjust to the challenges of virtual school.

She stayed in touch with friends virtually “which was a blessing” even if it wasn’t the same as running into them in Spencer Grill or meeting with her faith group in the Concerned Black Students suite. When her laptop “caught on fire,” she says, laughing now, she was able to get it replaced with help from Vrinda Varia, assistant chief diversity officer for Intercultural Student Life, and she was back online after missing only a few days of virtual classes. 

Despite combustible laptops, coursework, and the responsibilities that came with being home, Gaskins and her fellow editors of the faith-based college magazine Hope in the Darkest Days published issues that spring. The magazine, which emerged from conversations at a Posse Plus Retreat, was a way “to tie my faith and my love for writing together,” Gaskins says. 

Currently, Gaskins ministers to the residents of a Campbell Stone retirement facility in the Atlanta area. She is interested in becoming a minister and potentially a hospital chaplain. During the pandemic, Gaskins took comfort in bringing peace, prayer, and reflection to those in need of support. 

“It was something I was doing without necessarily realizing it,” she recalls. “I would like to support people, not just patients, but their families, too. It doesn’t take much, but it’s important for people to feel heard and seen.” 

Her presence, and the presence of many others, in Grinnell this weekend will no doubt be a balm. 

“This might be the end, but it’s OK”

In March 2020, Sanah Suri was contending with a broken foot, visiting graduate schools, planning a spring break trip to Jamaica, and preparing for her first role in a major Grinnell theater production, Dance Nation

Things moved quickly that second week in March and seemed to accelerate with each day. Suri recalls returning to campus after a graduate school visit and seeing a flood of social media posts from friends who were sobbing and taking “last trips” to buildings on campus. The following day, she had the cast removed from her foot.  

Mahira Faran '20, left, Calvin Tang '20, Indira Kapur '20, Nana Okamoto '20, Aabid Shamji '20, Sanah Suri '20, Yuya Kawakami '20, and Anaan Ramay '20 pose on Mac Field.
Mahira Faran '20, left, Calvin Tang '20, Indira Kapur '20, Nana Okamoto '20, Aabid Shamji '20, Sanah Suri '20, Yuya Kawakami '20, and Anaan Ramay '20 pose on Mac Field on the day of 2020 Commencement, which was conducted virtually because of the pandemic.

Suri distinctly remembers learning of the campus shutdown on the way back from the clinic. “It was the email we were all expecting – school is closed forever.” Suri started crying in the car “and the campus security officer didn’t understand what was going on.” 

That evening Suri joined the cast and crew of Dance Nation. “We all wrote notes for each other in our scripts,” she says. “In retrospect, it was very cathartic.” At her last in-person classes, she recalled that Statistics Associate Professor Jeff Jonkman encouraged the class to “Ask me about anything,” and Sociology Assistant Professor Sharon Quinsaat brought snacks.

“A lot was being taken away from us in a very short period of time,” she says, “Then people started leaving. One day people were in class and the next ‘I’m going back home and then I’m not going to see you like ever.’” 

Suri’s house, 1010 High Street, hosted a bonfire that was open to everyone on campus who hadn’t left yet. A band played throughout the night. The evening’s mood, she recalls was, “This might be the end, but it’s OK.” 

Over her remaining few months in Grinnell, Suri recalls the quiet that fell over the town, communal dinners, and exploring new and more distant areas of town on long, daily walks. She stayed until June, before leaving to join her sister in Berkeley, and eventually moving to St. Louis, where she’s pursuing a Ph.D. in mathematics at Washington University. 

Coincidentally, Suri and many members of the Class of 2020’s Commencement Committee pivoted to Young Alumni Weekend planners. Suri received an email asking if she would be interested, and she and others figured, “Why not?”

“I was curious because it had never happened before,” Suri says of the College having a Young Alumni Weekend. “Sophie Neems ’16 [assistant director of young alumni programming] was definitely open to the things we wanted to do. Our input was taken into everything.” 

She appreciates that the Class of 2020 has gotten so much focus and is able to attend the weekend at no cost. “Feeling special has been really nice,” she says laughing. “Entering the job market and the real world in the pandemic was challenging in a lot of ways. Having this financial freedom to come back to Grinnell is really nice.”

Hanging onto small moments

Like Suri, Calvin Tang was able to stay in Grinnell after the campus shutdown. The music and physics double major, and tenor saxophonist lived on Broad Street with his longtime roommate, Yuya Kawakami ’20

Calvin Tang ’20
    Calvin Tang ’20

A Hong Kong native, Tang compared his experience with students who had to contend with border crossings, visa clearances, isolation, and quarantines. He expressed how grateful and fortunate he felt to remain in Grinnell, eerie though it was. 

“I’ve seen the campus relatively empty,” he says, recalling two summers he spent in Grinnell working on Mentored Advance Projects, “but this was different.” 

As classes became asynchronous to accommodate a student body now spread across time zones and the world, seclusion began to take hold. “I didn’t realize how fast I had been going until I slowed down,” he says. With the music practice rooms on campus were closed, Tang traded in his tenor sax for a baseball glove and played catch with Kawakami on Mac Field as often as possible. 

Reflecting on it now, he thinks that it was not only most time he and Kawakami had spent together, but also the most meaningful. “We didn’t know what was going to happen. We were just hanging onto small moments.” 

One of those small moments occurred on what would have originally been Commencement day. The 2020ers in town donned academic robes, “watched the YouTube graduation ceremony and went out to Mac Field and took photos,” he recalls. He felt so lucky being able to take pictures in Grinnell with North Campus in the background.

Tang’s only a few months away from completing his pilot licensure in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, but his focus this weekend will be on seeing friends and expressing gratitude to all the people he never got to say thank you or goodbye to in person. 

A cathartic experience

While these recollections are by no means an exhaustive list of the Class of 2020’s experiences, there are some clear commonalities that emerged. Gaskins, Suri, and Tang all shared that the experience gave them each a chance to slow down and appreciate things that in any other semester they may have taken for granted. Similarly, they expressed a profound sense of accomplishment for their fellow graduates and all Grinnellians impacted by the disruption. 

Finally, all three are eagerly anticipating this weekend. 

“The last time we all were together was when we found out we had to leave,” says Gaskins. “We weren’t really able to celebrate in that full out acknowledgment of us graduating.” 

Suri’s kept in touch with many friends via social media, but she’s excited to see everyone and find out how they’ve genuinely been. She’s especially looking forward to seeing Young Alumni Weekend plans come to fruition and long overdue trips to Saints Rest and Choung Garden.

Stepping back onto campus itself will undoubtedly be a cathartic experience for everyone. “I don’t necessarily think I fully appreciated it when I was there,” Gaskins says. “I’m just happy to be back in a small town, to go to the Strand and Dari Barn, just the chance to be there again, experiencing all that I can of Grinnell.”

— by Joe Engleman ’14

For your information:

Learn more about Young Alumni Weekend, see the schedule of events, and view the list of who has registered to attend.

To read more alumni news, check out our news archive and like the Alumni & Friends Facebook page.