June is the month to celebrate graduation. Young adults in their late teens and early twenties are finishing their education in high school or college and Commencement Ceremonies are happening across the nation. Caps and gowns in a rainbow of colors are worn by students, faculty and staff don gowns and wild headgear that represents their various degrees and march with banners and poles in an age old ritual that could rival those of the mythical, magical school of Hogwarts. The strains of Pomp and Circumstance reverberate in the meeting halls and open arenas in every city and town. It’s Graduation Day.
Two years ago on a windy Saturday, my youngest child, my daughter graduated from college. Her brother had walked in his own college ceremony five years earlier. The emotion this ritual evokes cannot be minimized. We are proud, so very proud, we are hopeful, we are gratified, we are relieved. We have given our children the opportunity to achieve that which can never be taken from them and they have risen to the challenge. The flowers, the balloons, the gifts, the parties are all expressions of our collective gratitude in that august piece of paper. Our children have earned a college degree.
I have worked in a community college as an academic advisor for over 14 years and yesterday was graduation day. I have always loved this day, have always been a fan of pomp and ceremony, of dressing up in ceremonial gowns (although not so much of a fan of the mortarboard caps!) and of celebrating this special day with my students. I am fortunate that the population I work with are also graduating from high school and are still young and idealistic. Although many have experienced adversity beyond their tender years, they have their whole lives ahead of them.
What stands out more for me on this day are the other students that comprise a community college population. Adults who have overcome addictions or homelessness to earn a degree that will lead them to a different life. Students from broken homes. Students who dropped out of high school at an early age and then returned to finish that diploma. Students who have committed crimes and have paid their time to society and are now clawing their way back to peace and respectability. Students who are children of immigrants or indeed immigrants themselves who have tried to navigate a foreign language and foreign customs to make a better life for themselves and their families. Students who have come from violence, from loneliness, from neglect. Students who have studied in the late night after working a full time job then coming home to put their children to bed. So much need and support to get to this place. And yet, get there they did. The hope and happiness in the air at graduation ceremonies is palpable energy. The pride and joy of the students and their families. The utter relief to have gotten to this point.The huge smiles and fist pumps in the air as they walk across the stage.
I was on that stage myself more than once. I hit the age of 35 with 2 small children and no marketable skills after a decade of pursuing my dream of an acting career. I had a hard working husband but the fact remained that any circumstance of life could leave me the sole caretaker of these two young people and I was woefully unprepared. Going back to school was not an easy decision. I almost gave up after I met with an advisor and realized what a very long road I had in front of me. But that wise person changed my life. When I bemoaned that I would be in my mid forties before I finished my degree, he reminded me that I would most likely get to my mid forties anyway so why not have have the degree when I do get there. So I persevered. Perhaps I feel such an affinity to so many of those walking the stage yesterday because I was that mom doing homework late at night after I put my kids to bed. I was studying my note cards while sauteing meat for dinner. I was bookmarking my latest assignment so I could supervise the bath or read the bedtime story. But like those jubilant students yesterday, I was not alone. When I walked that stage 15 years ago, my children with there, my husband too. My brothers and sisters. My mom. Friends gathered at my home to celebrate with me. It really does take a village.
I am grateful that I can pay it forward as an advisor because that long ago advisor was right. I did make it to 45 and I had my degree. The joy I felt yesterday in watching my “kids” walk across that stage knowing that in some way I inspired them was lovely. The joy and pride I felt when my own two children walked across their respective stages knowing that I had supported them and maybe inspired them when they saw me do the same 15 years ago was priceless.
Graduations ceremonies are aptly called Commencement. I like that word. Rather than an ending, it suggests a beginning, a time to commence to the new phase of life, whatever that might be. Education is a gift to oneself that no one can ever take away from you. Happy Graduation to all those making that walk this month. That is something to celebrate.