Dear Students, Families, Faculty and Staff: Recently the Onondaga County Health Department has reported a notable decline in new COVID infections and hospitalizations across the Central New York region. This positive trend, combined with significantly reduced population density on our…
4 Years Unlike Anything Else: Reflecting on Life on the Syracuse University Campus
When the members of the Class of 2022 walked onto the Syracuse University campus in the fall of 2018, none of them could predict the unprecedented journey that awaited them over the next four years.
An unknown, fast-spreading global health pandemic.
The sudden shutdown of campus.
Postponing Commencement for the Class of 2020.
Shuffling between remote and in-person classes.
Holding not one but three separate Commencement ceremonies for the Class of 2021 that practiced social distancing and followed COVID-19 safety protocols.
A national reckoning around race and social justice spurring nationwide protests, including on campus and in the City of Syracuse, and a rise in hate crimes against some of the most marginalized communities.
It’s been anything but business as usual these last four years.
Those are some of the adjectives used by Jonathan Danilich ’22, Cameron Joy Gray ’22, Diego Luna ’22 and Darnelle Stinfort ’22 to describe their time as undergraduates.
On Sunday morning, Danilich, Gray, Luna and Stinfort will be among the more than 6,400 undergraduates, graduate students, law students and doctoral students expected to have their degrees conferred inside the stadium before family members, friends and members of the campus community.
It marks the culmination of a challenging four-year period on campus, a time unlike any other in Syracuse’s proud 152-year history.
Leading up to Commencement, we caught up with Stinfort, vice president of the Student Association, Gray, a Syracuse University Scholar and Our Time Has Come Scholar; Danilich, the past president of Otto’s Army; and Luna, an Our Time Has Come Scholar, to discuss being a Syracuse University student during these uncharted times.
Darnelle Stinfort ’22, Student Association (SA) Vice President
Before she arrived on campus, whenever Darnelle Stinfort ’22 heard people say they were using their time at college to find themselves, she was confused.
“Why does anyone need to find themselves? Don’t they know who they are?” Stinfort says, reflecting on her attitude during her first year on campus.
Back in the fall of 2019, Stinfort knew who she was, or at least she thought she did. As she prepares to receive a bachelor’s degree in biotechnology from the College of Arts and Sciences, she admits her four years have been “a reality check,” that she “doesn’t have it all figured out,” and that it’s OK to not have the answers to life’s questions.
“There’s always twists and turns. Life is full of the unexpected. You need to learn to deal with the unexpected challenges life throws your way. I’m learning to just get by one day at a time,” Stinfort says.
When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, Stinfort had a hard time focusing on her courses. The sense of isolation was overwhelming. Stinfort also helped her father, a middle school math teacher, navigate technical difficulties he encountered teaching class on Zoom.
It was an anxious time, and that was before the protests calling for social justice following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others took over city streets across the country.
Hard work and dedication helped Stinfort thrive academically. But the constant reminders of deaths of Black men and women at the hands of a police officer became too much. Stinfort often burst into tears while scrolling through her Instagram feed, feeling completely overwhelmed.
Stinfort was ignoring her mental well-being and needed help. She reconnected with her faith, saw a counselor and ceased using social media. More importantly, Stinfort, who would minimize her own feelings because others were dealing with worse issues, allowed herself the grace to grieve and the right to feel the way she felt on a particular day
“I decided to get more into reading books that dealt with the social unrest in this country and the system in which we live. It gave me some clarity. Eventually, I regained my mental wellness, and prayer and reconnecting with my spiritual side definitely helped, too,” Stinfort says.
Stinfort is proud of what she and SA president David Bruen accomplished during the 2021-22 academic year, including the advocating for “Wellness Days” during each semester beginning in the fall of 2023; the grocery store trolley program that gave students complimentary rides to and from neighboring stores; and the resumption of the free Menstrual Product Program that supplies students with menstrual pads and tampons in bathrooms across campus.
She’s also proud of her new attitude, taking time to appreciate the resiliency required to make it to Commencement.
“I’m learning to celebrate myself. It’s okay to celebrate what I’ve accomplished and not just rush on to the next challenge. I feel more confident in being able to overcome future obstacles because of the lessons I’ve learned from these last four years,” says Stinfort, who wants to one day become a physician.
Cameron Joy Gray ’22, Our Time Has Come Scholar
“When are we coming back? Are we coming back? How do you do anything for school online? How are we going to shoot our sophomore films?”
These were some of the questions Cameron Joy Gray ’22 asked herself on that chaotic day in March 2020 when she and many of her peers made a mad dash to the Schine Student Center to collect boxes for packing up their belongings.
The timing was less than ideal. Gray and a classmate had each spent a few hundred dollars to cast and hire actresses for their production about middle school girls and female friendships.
Gray, a film major in the Department of Film and Media Arts in the College of Visual and Performing Arts, spent the first 10 weeks of the Spring 2020 semester mapping out her sophomore film project. Now, she headed home to Washington, D.C., to work on a condensed, four-week film project about a girl who discovers an old telephone in her attic that puts her in touch with people who were alive during the Cold War.
The project connected the mass hysteria and fear of the unknown surrounding COVID-19 with the Cold War and concerns over communism. It also prepared Gray for “the most difficult semester of her life,” the Fall 2021 semester.
Through it all, Gray persevered. In April 2021, Gray was named the recipient of a 2021 Beinecke Scholarship, an award that provides graduate funding and mentorship for juniors in the arts, humanities or social sciences. Gray was just the second Beinecke Scholar in Syracuse’s history.
As part of her senior thesis film, Gray finally wrote her production about middle school girls and female friendships.
Gray’s filmmaking skills earned her a Chancellor’s Citation for Excellence in Student Research, and toward the end of her senior year, Gray was selected as a Syracuse University Scholar, the highest undergraduate honor the University bestows.
“It’s been crazy rewarding, crazy surprising and just crazy in general. Each year on campus has been completely different than the one before it,” Gray says.
“I’m proud of our class and our professors for adjusting and adapting to every challenge we’ve had to face. We’ve achieved so much. I’m grateful we were still able to come together and have those experiences, even in the midst of a global pandemic.”
Jonathan Danilich ’22, Past President, Otto’s Army
Otto’s Army has a reputation as one of the most passionate student sections in the country. As its president for the 2020-21 school year, Jonathan Danilich ’22 faced an unusual dilemma.
In August of 2020, then-New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo decreed that fans couldn’t attend games because of concerns over COVID-19 when college sports teams returned to play that fall.
When your job is to rile up the student section, but you can’t attend the games, what is the president to do? You find new and creative ways to engage with students.
Danilich expanded Otto’s Army’s presence on YouTube, Twitter and Instagram, and he and Otto’s Army’s leadership team live tweeted during Syracuse games, organized video watch parties and competed with the opposition’s fans on YouTube.
Toward the beginning of the Spring 2021 semester, fans were allowed back inside the stadium to root for the men’s and women’s lacrosse teams.
The hard work paid off for Danilich when, on Sept. 11, 2021, COVID restrictions eased and students and fans cheered on the Orange when Syracuse hosted Rutgers University, the first football game with fans in nearly two years.
“It felt different having everyone back in there smushed together again. It felt really weird after all that time with no fans. But all I was focused on was the mission we needed to accomplish,” says Danilich. “You have to make the first game count because students won’t come back if it isn’t fun. People arrived early and we taught them our chants and we just me made it a raucous atmosphere. It was so loud and everyone had a blast. It felt really good being back.”
Danilich plans to use the skills he’s acquired through his time with Otto’s Army and the relationships he’s built with the athletics department to transition into a career in sports marketing.
“College is a time where you really find yourself, and these past four years have given me a chance to rethink what I want to do in life,” says Danilich, a broadcast and digital journalism major in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.
“I wanted to do something that makes people smile. Being part of Otto’s Army these last four years has helped me do that. It changed a lot of people’s school experiences for the better, and I’m really proud of that.”
Diego Luna ’22, Our Time Has Come Scholar
The situation was dire for Diego Luna ’22.
Back in his parents’ home in Brownsville, Texas, COVID-19 cases were high. Luna felt isolated taking virtual classes, and he was missing the sense of community and camaraderie he felt with his friends on campus, especially in the Pride Union student organization.
Luna almost transferred out of Syracuse, but thankfully, he stuck it out, making the most of a bad situation while recreating that sense of community in a virtual setting. Like the times Pride Union would hold drag shows and drag bingo nights virtually, in addition to starting new traditions like Netflix watch parties.
When classes resumed on campus and in-person activities were once again deemed safe, the time apart made gathering in person that much more special.
“When everyone finally got back together, it was such a strong and happy welcome back moment, especially for the students that were here during the pandemic. We had missed those in-person gatherings and interactions so much. The time apart made our bond even stronger,” says Luna, a biotechnology major in the College of Arts and Sciences.
That sense of community applies to the good times and the troublesome times, like when the country experienced a rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans, Blacks, the LGBTQ+ community and other historically marginalized members of society.
Luna, who identifies as queer, was proud of the conversations he observed during those difficult moments. Especially the ones that focused on all the ways we’re similar instead of our differences.
“A mantra of mine is ‘Five seconds of courage,’ from the movie ‘We Bought a Zoo.’ Five seconds of courage is all you need to get a conversation going. It’s easier said than done, but if you take a chance, talk to someone and really get to know them, regardless of their political or ideological beliefs, it’s surprising the levels of community we can create that way,” Luna says.
What advice would Luna have for his freshman year self?
“You’ll be challenged like you’ve never, ever been challenged before, and you will think this is the most impossible, emotionally trying time you’ll ever live through. But you will get through it. It’s been a great experience and I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. The amount of growth I went through is immeasurable, mainly because of the amazing faculty, staff and students who created such a welcoming environment,” Luna says.