I never thought much of Homecoming pre-pandemic. In fact, I didn’t even go in 2019, my sophomore year. But when homecoming weekend rolled around last year to very little fanfare, I found myself missing it. When compared to the devastation we experienced as a world last year, missing out on a day of excessively long football games and too-tight high heels might not seem like a big deal. For many students, though, it came to represent a thousand other stolen moments of their high school experience.
After some initial doubt, Homecoming made a return this year, and while it may not have been “normal”- students donned orange and blue face masks and organized pre-dance plans under tents in the Quad- I watched my classmates embrace the festivities with a fervor I don’t remember seeing pre-pandemic. So many students bought tickets to the dance that administrators ran out of physical tickets and the Saturday football game had a close-to-record attendance.
Over the past month, I had the opportunity to learn about and from Afghan refugees who have recently arrived in St. Louis, and as I celebrated Homecoming alongside my peers I couldn’t help but feel drawn back to their story. For me, the homecoming season has been a sign of hope after a year and a half of emotional exhaustion. But for the Afghan refugees, who are fleeing a country that has suffered from Covid-19 alongside the rest of the world, there has been no such reprieve. Their arrival in St. Louis may signify safety from the threats they were experiencing in Afghanistan, but they are now faced with the hardships many refugees encounter: a new language, a new community, and no way home.
Since the 19th century, the homecoming season has been a time to welcome back and celebrate former members of a community, primarily alumni of a university. A quintessential American tradition, some stories even claim that the first Homecoming may have been held just hours from Clayton, in Columbia, Missouri.
Homecoming this year already holds more significance after its absence last year. We have found creative ways to bend the tradition to fit the new world we are living in. Not all of the changes are permanent- there is hopefully a future where a mask is not a necessary safety accessory- but we have proven that a tradition can be amended to be more safe, more accessible, and more inclusive.
I believe we can push the definition of Homecoming even further this year. What if, in a season dedicated to welcoming back returning members of the community, we also made space and time to welcome the new members of our communities?
For now, it is impossible for many Afghan refugees to risk returning to their communities. But while the homes that they have been forced out of cannot be replaced, we have the opportunity to welcome them with the same enthusiasm that we celebrate the return of our former community members. After all, what is a community if not a group of people who have at one point left home and ended up in the same place?
The original concept of homecoming is an acknowledgement of this: the communities that were first reunited were not brought together by hometown or birthplace, but by graduation from the same universities. Homecoming was not designed to encourage the replacement of a first community, it was a celebration of the continued creation of new communities.
The festivities of homecoming may be over for this year, but the spirit of the tradition will live on, if only we take the time to welcome every member of our community home.