Commencement 2012

This week’s Project Create, inspired by graduating students everywhere.

This is the moment. Standing at the entrance to an upper-level aisle, gazing down on the Key Arena floor, where everything is set up for the commencement ceremony that will start in about two hours. No one’s seated yet, the staff’s still working last-minute details while faculty and VIP’s get robed. The place is waiting, and it’s quiet, except for a hum from the hall outside.

For anyone who works in higher education, the weeks and days before commencement can be fraught – classes are finishing, grades have to be posted, grade point averages calculated, final counts of attendees need to be obtained, celebration dinners, brunches, photograph sessions need to be arranged. Year-end details abound and demand tending, and the usual swirl of political intrigue and posturing does not slow down one bit to allow for it.

The day of commencement at my university, awards are handed out at a morning event, and the long (or brief) speeches of gratitude do not belie the jockeying and elbowing that went on behind the scenes. Everyone smiles and shakes hands. Everyone has too much coffee.

I always make sure to sneak away for the moment, though I’m never sure exactly when or where it will come. This year it came as I stood at that upper-level entry and stared at the empty floor, the stage with its banners like an altar, the rows of chairs like pews. In the near-quiet everything that comes before and after commencement falls away, and I’m astonished at the spectacle: a ritual to celebrate learning, and those who have spent the last several years of their lives devoted to it. To celebrate the simple yet dangerous fact that learning transforms individuals, their communities, and by extension, the world.

Are we only preparing the privileged to become more elite? Some colleges are. Mine reaches out to middle-class, working adults who need to advance careers (or get jobs); who aspire to be teachers, counselors, and non-profit leaders; who need to study online because they are caring for teenagers and elderly parents and oh, by the way, my boss says I have to go on a business trip tomorrow; who are the first in their families to attend college. They are not, for the most part, destitute; but they are not, for the most part, the one percent, either. Some want to join the one percent; many would be thrilled to feel their jobs a bit more secure, or to get their first classroom teaching assignment, or to land a position in the county mental health system.

In any case, we are here together to celebrate the one thing they all have in common: the completion of one phase of learning, recognized by an associate’s, bachelor’s, or master’s degree; and the commencement of the next phase of learning, whatever that will be for them – another degree, or a stint in real life, or both.

It amazes me that we convert an entire arena for this purpose, in this day and age. Learning still holds magic enough to do that.

Then the noise takes over – the graduates are lining up, the music is starting, and I’m late to get my cap and gown on and join the faculty for the processional. I run to join the happy chaos.

By some stroke of luck, I get to sit in the first row of faculty, lining the ramp down from the stage where every graduate walks after shaking the university president’s hand. I see each face: many are beaming, eyes scanning the audience for their friends and families; some are watching the wooden ramp below them intently, as if they are walking on their six-inch heels for the first time; a few are gazing blankly into space, as if they are unsure what they see in front of them.

All of them are celebrating, and so am I.

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