A graduation ceremony is an event where the commencement speaker tells thousands of students dressed in identical caps and gowns that ‘individuality’ is the key to success. ~ Robert Orben
Today, once again, for my thirty-fifth year in education I witnessed the Miracle of Graduation. I call it a miracle because if you’ve worked behind the scenes as long as I have, seen behind the curtain enough, you know how unbelievably complicated and dysfunctional higher education bureaucracy can be. Given how difficult getting anything done is in higher education, every spring it really seems like a miracle to see those students walking across the stage in their caps and gowns.
So it happened again today, 300 of them walked across the stage, all smiles and full of pride. Friends and families came out in droves, they brought flowers, balloons and gifts of all kinds. Those family members clapped and cheered, hooted and hollered. After the ceremony there were hugs and tears, people went out to dinner and celebrated just like they always do.
Today’s ceremony was particularly sweet. There’s a lot going on in the world. This class was the class of the pandemic, as two-year students they have not known college except during a global pandemic. That fact is a pressure multiplier. For our community college students, they are a group that already is and has always been under pressure. The majority of our students work at least part-time, many full-time and many are parents. Most come from the lower socioeconomic levels in America. Which of course means many of them, like I was, are first generation college students.
Being a first generation student brings a special basket full of stresses and pressures. First off, it means that there is often someone in your family who doesn’t even understand why you are going to college, someone who expects you to fail and doesn’t value what you’re doing. You also have the exact opposite pressure as there are incredible expectations for you to do well, to represent your family. Very often your family has sacrificed to make college possible and as such, they are counting on you to be successful. Not just successful, but for you to change the trajectory of the future of your entire family.
The beauty of community colleges are that they are places, where students, who didn’t feel comfortable in secondary education, can often find a supportive and safe place to further their education. Our students come from every part of society. Black and brown students who have never felt equal, LGBTQ students who have been bullied and ostracized, our AAPI students who live with the fear that they’ll be assaulted in the street. Many of our students come from poor families and all of the added stresses that occur from economic difficulties at home. We work incredibly hard in the community college system to support all of these students and help them be successful.
So it’s all of these stresses and issues that these students bring to campus while trying to learn. And for those who walked today, two-years of all of the added stresses brought about by the pandemic. The fear and anxiety of getting ill or of causing a family member to get ill. The stresses related to the economic madness that has been occurring, constant rule changes about isolating and masking, surviving lock-downs. Losing people in their lives that they love. Throw in a war in Ukraine with its accompanying threat of nuclear war or even World War III starting. To give you an example of how complicated it was. Our Cosmetology students had their classes suspended, were allowed to briefly come back and were once again pushed off campus and then returned. Unlike every previous class that had opportunities for client nights throughout their time in college, our current group has only had that opportunity for the last eight weeks. Oh and just a few months ago the state licensing bureau changed all of the licensing requirements that they will be under. No other set of students has had so many additional obstacles thrown in their way.
And that’s the other part of the Miracle of Graduation, first that the students got through the bureaucracy, their own obstacles and everything the world has thrown at them. The second miracle is what this completion does for all of us. These students, all students, but particularly these students truly are our hope and future. The mere fact that they have graduated, whether it is with a certificate or degree, means that these students have put themselves in an incredible position to change their lives for the better. But it’s not just their lives, especially for those first generation students, they are changing the lives of their entire families for generations. That’s a magnificent level of success, it’s the very definition of the American Dream, that the next generation can do better than the last.
But we’re at a nexus point in the history of the United States, hell, the history of the world. We’re potentially on the brink of World War III, we’re living in the worst global pandemic in a hundred years, global supply chains are in disarray, inflation is spiking to a height not seen in forty years. Not to mention the fact that global climate change is a true existential human crisis.
It’s not surprising given everything above that we’ve started to hear that young people are becoming increasingly bleak about their future. But that’s not the students who have and will be walking across college stages across the country in the coming weeks. These students truly are our hope. They have worked hard and persevered in one of the toughest college environments any student has ever faced. They are up to the incredibly complex challenges of the modern world and frankly, they are our only hope for us to successfully face these challenges, and I’m incredibly proud of anything I’ve done to help get them there and to have been there today to celebrate the Miracle of Graduation with them.