IU first lady Laurie Burns McRobbie. Photo by Shannon Zahnle

First Lady of Indiana University

I’m writing this on commencement weekend for Indiana University–Bloomington. And what a weekend—sunny, warm, the air filled with the scent of blooming trees and the canonical red and white tulips in glorious profusion all over campus. The setting is there, but we have to imagine the throngs of students and their proud families posing for pictures by the Sample Gates.

We’d planned a grand celebration to honor the bicentennial class of 2020, an auspicious occasion in an auspicious year. It’s hard to feel anything but sorrow at losing this commencement of all commencements. We know we’ll be able to honor this special class of graduates at a future date, and that the traditions and rituals we cherish will return. And there’s solace of a kind in feeling enormous gratitude for the faculty who so quickly turned to teaching virtually, and for the staff who ensured the digital infrastructure and kept the necessary operations of the university going. We must remember what we’re capable of and greet the start of IU’s third century with renewed commitment to what makes us a great university.

But just as the loss of commencement, and the pandemic more broadly, has profoundly impacted IU, Bloomington itself has taken a body blow. As in college towns across the country, the influx of visitors at commencement alone can carry a small business for months. Without the students, businesses and nonprofits alike struggle for revenue and volunteers.

And the worst may be yet to come as businesses reopen and try to regain their lost customer base, facing postponed bills and debt from the very welcome loans that are being made right now. Nonprofits that function on the thinnest of margins in the best of times are watching revenue from cancelled events and performances disappear, and donations whither as discretionary income dries up. At the same time, the need for social services, particularly in food security, mental health, and child welfare, has skyrocketed. The present is hard, but just as IU is thinking about the coming academic year and beyond, we need to think about how Bloomington recovers; this is the work we’re called to do now.

Bloomington’s identity is bound up in our local organizations, in the rich array of nonprofit agencies, and in our small and locally owned businesses. Our identity is also bound up in our collective pride in our community-spiritedness, in our commitment to education and its generative power for citizens and the economy, and in our dedication to making Bloomington an even more open and inclusive place. We worry that we could lose these things. But there are actions we can take now to keep the Bloomington we love. Here’s my list:

>> Stay up on the latest public health advisories, and follow all recommendations for keeping yourself and your fellow citizens healthy.

>> Stay informed more generally, and check your sources. Forward helpful data and thoughtful commentary, not conspiracy theories. We’re an educated community—let’s keep acting like it.

>> Donate whatever you can; no gift is too small. Add up the money you’d be spending on travel and hair appointments and give it to local agencies. Add up the time you’d spend driving to work or running errands and volunteer your time (safely).

>> Buy local, eat local. Use Amazon (etc.) only when there isn’t a local option. Offer to pay a month’s rent or utilities for your favorite local business.

>> Support our hard-working teachers, child care providers, and education professionals in every way you can. They’re our “boots on the ground” in ensuring a bright future for all.

>> Keep thanking the medical professionals in our community. Don’t forget all those who make it possible for them to save lives, like the hospital cleaning staff.

>> VOTE. The change you don’t see is the vote you didn’t cast. And thank your elected representatives and city officials—they’ve had to make decisions in an impossible context.

What will the world be like next year? No one knows. Uncertainty is painful. It helps to also focus on the small things: making art, staying physically active, smiling (your cheek muscles need exercise, too!), washing your hands, and saying “I love you.” Together, we can keep Bloomington Bloomington, and there will be another beautiful commencement weekend to celebrate here in our beautiful town.