By Published: March 4, 2024

The class of 2024 is unique — though a more typical campus experience for them might have been easier.

Many of these students arrived on campus in the fall of 2020 at the height of COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns. Some took classes from home on the other side of the world, waking up at 2 a.m. to attend a Boulder-based Zoom class. Others experienced isolation. And some came back to a different world after trying a new experience — the military, an out-of-state school or a gap year.

They adapted to online learning as CU Boulder continued developing new curricula, and complied with weekly virus testing and mask requirements, while the university canceled campus activities. The “college experience” previous generations raved about didn’t exist. But they persisted, pioneering their own college traditions, while adjusting to ever-evolving technology, public health advisories and political divisions. 

These students — many of whom were born after 9/11 — saw the rise of TikTok and ChatGPT, global wars and climate-related disasters that completely changed the world in four years. Interviews with 12 of these students revealed a resounding theme: the importance of their Buffs community. From the marching band to the physics lab — friends, peers, advisors, professors and family members motivated them to keep moving forward through it all. 

Senior Benjamin Varga (BusAna, InfoMgmt’24) said: “Even though we come from so many different backgrounds, I really can feel a strong sense of community and pride within anyone that I run into who is from CU.” 

Benjamin Varga (BusAna, InfoMgmt’24)

Parker, Colorado

“The on-campus professional business fraternity called Alpha Kappa Psi really influenced my time at CU. Meeting the upperclassmen in that fraternity was my first opportunity to make CU a little bit smaller. I made great friendships in the dorms and everything like that, but being pretty intentional about it and having to go through the process and then getting welcomed with open arms and shown a whole new subset culture of CU — that was a super cool way to feel a little bit more niche and find a little bit more of a closer circle, especially early on, which is really important.”

Jessica Valadez Fraire (ElEdu’24)

Boulder, Colorado

“What’s happening in Palestine has been really impactful to me. I’ve seen more of a community effort to educate ourselves about issues that are happening not only in our communities, but outside of them and how they’re all connected. I’ve been part of a lot of circles and community spaces where we’re having critical discussions about injustice, oppression and colonialism, and we’re starting to build a broader community among a lot of different people that are struggling with issues similar to ours. This has taught me to educate myself and pushed me further into learning about the struggles of other communities and the responsibility I have to spread that message, including using my privilege in being a citizen here, the power in that and the responsibility I have to doing more.”

Elijah Parkes (IntlAf’24)

Superior, Colorado

“I initially fell into a leadership role in the College of Arts and Sciences’ student government, and from there, it allowed me to challenge myself as a leader and do things I never would have been able to do otherwise. Being president of a college student government was not something that I would’ve ever predicted for myself, but I now can’t imagine my college career without it. And working, networking and helping other people like my peers be leaders as well has been really, really rewarding.”

Matt Guerrero (Math, Phys’24)

Parker, Colorado

“I struggle a lot with transitioning back into the civilian world after being in the Navy, even now after four or five years. One of my very best friends runs an organization here in physics called COSMOS, the Community of Support for Marginalized and Other Students, which is a diversity-focused group within physics. And because he was one of my best friends and also a veteran, I ended up doing my best to support him in any way I could. And that flipped a switch in me to actively pursue diversity-related issues within STEM, particularly that people who are from underprivileged backgrounds or backgrounds of color don’t generally get the same attention as people who aren’t.

I’m half Filipino, half Ashkenazi Jew, and I’ve never really fit in anywhere. As a veteran who’s joining the civilian community, it’s difficult to find people you trust and can relate to. This group helped me not only recognize that a lot of people might feel like that wherever they come from, but also that it’s possible to relate to people who don’t know exactly what you’ve been through. And through that, I’ve tried to be that person who can do that for others.”

Madison Tallman (Mus’24)

Colorado Springs, Colorado

“COVID was the biggest event that defined my growth the past few years. That’s because of how much it affected music specifically. Music is all about collaboration, so missing that element of it, I did see a lot of people struggle with that. I feel like I really just pushed through because I was like, ‘Once this is back to normal, it’s going to be so rewarding.’ It really was. And one thing it did for me — and in high school too because I had so much time to myself — was really allow me to reflect on what I wanted to do. It was reassuring in a way that, yes, this is what I want to do even though I’m not able to do these things collaboratively. I pushed through it, and I think it made me stronger in the end.”

Hazel Hays (CompSci’24)

Aurora, Colorado

“The fight for LGBT rights, especially to do with transgender rights, is a community issue that has shaped my personal growth while in college. It’s a big topic for me being transgender myself. That’s been the big defining thing lately for me. It’s mainly that they are my rights and so they’re something that I have to fight for.”

Nathan Thompson (Jour’24)

Lafayette, Colorado

“Due to illness in 2020, I couldn’t leave my room for two months. It was a lot of time in forced isolation. That really forced me to develop my inward perspective, become more comfortable with myself as a person and develop my own voice and my own self-confidence too. So that was interesting because my network was really small. It was just me and then maybe three or four friends for a while who were really formative in shaping me into who I am today. And I also think mentors too, and a lot of the photographers and professors that I’ve been fortunate enough to get to know and connect with deeply have really helped me and inspired me to continue to work hard and carve out a space for myself as a self-sufficient photographer.”

Shivank Chadda (Math, Phys’24)

Port Blair, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, India

“During COVID, interestingly, there were a lot of bad things that were going on, but one of the good things was witnessing that the internet is a good place to get your education. And coming from islands where I didn’t really have internet for 18 years, and right when I started at CU Boulder, I was very lucky to get the internet right at that particular time. And then in January 2023, my brother and I started a YouTube channel on science, “Doctor Chadha,” where we make physics videos based on dynamics and stuff like that. We were able to get 200,000 views per year and around 1,300 subscribers.”

Megan Finnigan (EngrPhys, MechEngr’24)

Superior, Colorado

“My entire time in my undergraduate career has been shaped a lot by climate-related issues. I’ve been involved with Engineers Without Borders and other environmental organizations on campus, and it’s something that has driven me to continue to study science and learn how I can make a difference. When I was in Rwanda I met this woman who, when I shook her hand, I noticed she had a Ralphie tattoo on her wrist, and we connected over that. It’s really cool to be part of a global community where people are looking out for each other and can unite over these shared experiences. 

Two years ago, my family and I were part of the Marshall Fire, and while we didn’t lose our house, I saw a lot of my neighbors lose their homes, and we had extensive smoke damage at our house. And that felt like a very real experience of a natural disaster, largely attributed to the effects of climate change and drought. That further ignited the flame in me to keep pushing and pursuing a career where I can make an impact.”

Brandon Dixon (Soc’24)

Castle Rock, Colorado 

“Being locked inside the house around my family 24/7 during a dark time really motivated me and gave me a different perspective on life. Just the uncertainty of it all and being around my loved ones at that time showed me that as long as you are around good people, anything can happen.” 

Hassan Almatrood (MechEngr’24)

Saihat, Saudi Arabia

“I was studying at Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon, and I chose to come to CU Boulder because I always heard from people — especially from my brother because he knew people who graduated from CU Boulder — that there is a good community in Boulder. I heard that the university culture is good and there is a balance between studying and social life, which is something that I would appreciate. So I chose to be here and it was correct. I’m glad that I came here.” 

Joy Liu (Chem, PortugSpan’24)

Aurora, Colorado

“COVID definitely made me have a broader outlook on things. I am just more aware of how many different things are tied together. I feel like if I am worried about something, it’s like, ‘Well, it could be me being upset about this, or it could be tons of other things happening,’ and I need to learn how to understand why it’s happening and then learn how to deal with it.”

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Illustrations by Jacqueline Oakley