I forget sometimes how intimidating the commencement ceremony can be for our graduating seniors. I do my best to help them relax and enjoy the experience. Before the ceremony begins I join them when they are all lined-up for the processional to offer a few reassuring comments and hopefully generate a few laughs. This year I told them as they walk across the stage to receive their diplomas, my job was to “keep them out of the ditch.” My guess is that prior to donning the cap and gown, most do not think of this event as a big deal – until they each stand opposite of me on stage and one-by-one their names are announced.
Each encounter with a graduate in that brief moment is unique. I tell them in advance if they are uncomfortable to look me in the eye and I will guide them through. I also typically say something encouraging as they approach me to help them focus on the task at hand. For some this is important advice as I often see wide eyes watering and feel a sweaty palm grasping for mine. Others relish the moment in the spotlight so much that they nearly forget to receive the diploma.
You would think that walking about 30 feet is a simple task, but admittedly there is a bit of sensory overload for those not accustomed to standing alone in a very public setting. The regalia is unfamiliar. Is my hood slipping? What if my cap falls off? The stage area is crowded with people and props. Where is the photographer? Where do I look? The whole thing is over in about 10 seconds. What if my heel catches in the carpeting and I take a header off the platform? Each journey across the platform is unique, as is the much longer journey that brought our graduate to the stage.
On the day our first-year students arrive on campus in the late summer, I stand in front of them at a very different ceremony we call, “Passing of the Class.” My job during that ceremony is to formally receive the class, welcome them, and charge them with the task ahead. I know they hear almost nothing I say. So I try to keep it very upbeat and simple. They are filled with expectations as they arrive, but most of their expectations at the beginning will be surpassed by the reality of the experience they will reflect on in the end. Our job as an academic community along the way is to help them stay out of the ditch.
The “passing of the class” and our commencement exercises are both emotional moments for me. Students in these settings stand at a threshold of new experiences, not knowing exactly what lies ahead. As they pass through the college years, they are shaped and reshaped by the experience itself; ambitions morph as talents are discovered and tested; pathways diverge as the realities of life emerge. Emotion wells up as I am reminded that the journey through college and the journey through life will yield opportunities never imagined, challenges never anticipated, successes beyond expectations, and failures beyond belief. The privilege of being educators is through the college years we can help to provide perspective for interpreting opportunity and success, as well as encouragement through times of challenge and failure. The genius of an academic community is that we serve as a living laboratory for the human learning experience as the years of adolescence give way to the years of adulthood.
As a society we share a responsibility for the generations that follow us. Yet, the focused energy devoted to college students dissipates into the vast ocean of life experience. There are no deans to prepare and guide. The time and energy professors invest is no longer near at hand. Coaches and music ensemble directors are gradually less present. To be sure, many graduates find lifelong friendships with those on campus that extend long into the future. However, these can only serve to a limited extent, as time and distance thin the lines of communication and connection. Our society, therefore, must take seriously the role and responsibility to keep coming generations out of the ditch. If we invest in each other, we will all benefit from a life experience that is fundamentally relational, not simply transactional.
We have so many ways to contribute. I would wish for each of our graduates this year that mentors will appear as if by magic to extend the learning necessary as they advance through the life stages of career and family. Our opportunities to mentor are ample, but the test is in our willingness to step forward and play a productive role. The responsibility is ours to make mentoring a priority in our lives.
Members of our extended families need to know that we can be available to help. If the voice and experience of a parent is not effective, sometimes an aunt or uncle can offer a useful word or insight. Neighbors and family friends are a rich resource if only to share personal experiences that can inform the journey of another. Professionals can agree to accept requests for informational interviews sought by young adults eager to understand more about a potential career pathway. Communities of faith are a deep reservoir of experience to be shared.
Our task is not to be overbearing and prescriptive. The thing our coming generations need most are people who can help them formulate great questions, not attempt to provide simple answers. I have found after many years in higher education that our younger colleagues need conversation partners more than they need advice. They benefit most when we help them understand how we think rather than telling them how they should think. We have a great opportunity to simply share a bit of ourselves. That alone will keep many out of the ditch.