Graduation Day

I have a wonderful job.

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Every year I get reminded of that fact on graduation day. It’s not that I don’t feel it at other times; I do, of course, even in the midst of all the less-than-fulfilling elements of my job. But on graduation day, no matter where I am emotionally and intellectually, I can’t ever forget what a lucky person I am to be doing the work I get to do as a college professor.

One of the most beautiful things about my job is the cycle of things. There is a pace to the work year, and a process that is part of that pace playing out. Classes begin and end. Students come and go. They begin as first years and leave after (we hope) four years. Our year has a beginning, and an end.

Today is that end. Graduation day brings an end to the year and to the process. It’s also about the next phase, the new beginning. It’s about the cycle.

On this day I am reminded about the power of education. I don’t mean this in the simplistic, neoliberal hope that the “individual” can improve their economic lot in life with a college degree. On days like this, I am reminded of the power of education despite this individualistic, market-driven ethos. I am reminded of what it can mean for a society like ours, for young people–people that are parts of communities whose worth and humanity has been measured by our distance from an education–to receive their degrees.

It’s an achievement for many of us to earn our degrees. But it’s also bigger than us. It’s an achievement that makes an impact on our families, our friends, and other loved ones. Watching the faces today, seeing the young adults I get to work with celebrate with their families, I can’t help but be grateful.

I am also amazed.

There are so many students for whom this is not a challenge. For many (perhaps especially at my college) this is just another step in a life of unfolding opportunity. It’s a rite of passage for them, and for their families.

For a precious few (perhaps especially at my college) this is a big deal. I am constantly amazed at the students who beat the odds; at the ones who did it all while bringing their families and their hearts along; at the ones who did it alone, but by carrying the spirits of those who loved them; at the ones who came, who showed us how amazing they are, and who leave more educated and still whole.

Academia in the 21st century United States produces a diverse set of workplaces. In lots of ways, the business model of higher education is undergoing a transformation. That produces changes in the work we do, the ways we do it, and the ways we feel about it.

I’d like to think that this is the part of the job that remains real, that remains sustaining in the face of all the rest.

I feel lucky to be a part of this process in the lives of others.  I feel lucky to get to learn with them. And I feel lucky to create spaces where they can discover, be challenged, and learn with each other and for themselves.

It’s been a great year because of these people. 

To the Class of 2011

I wish you a life filled with happiness and love and peace. I hope you can protect the youth and passion you nurtured so well while you were here.

You have worked hard to reach this milestone in your life but that effort coexisted in a reality framed by a series of almost invisible accidents. Whether you are lucky more than you are deserving, or vice versa, is a meaningless debate. You are privileged to have studied, to have experienced the rare joy of moments when your mind has been immersed in possibility and creativity. Never lose sight of this.

The most dangerous thing I have heard said to you these past days is “Welcome to the real world.” The person who says this assumes two things: 1) that your life in college has been absent any of the hardships and struggles of everyday life; and 2) that the assumed luxury provided to you in your years here is not, somehow, “real.” Let me assure you–both are wrong.

For those of you for whom college life has been marked by multiple jobs, battles against the insecurity of class and race, and a war against a larger system that sought to carve you into something you would not and could not be, then I need say no more. I’ve been there, too. I’m proud of you for surviving.

For the rest who have experienced a college career marked by more nurturing than opposition, even you have not been disconnected from something real. Life–real life–is struggle. It is work. It is stressful and it is disappointing. But it is also filled with excitement, love, blind joy. It is filled with moments of celebration and caring, of passion and humanism, of being you and being given the space and resources to be you. It might not be this for each and everyone of us on this globe, but it should be. Everything good you experienced in life while you were here is also part of life when you leave and needs to be more of life for more of us.

You enter the next phase of your adult career at a moment of great uncertainty and crisis. These are good times to finish college because they afford you the luxury of knowing what is important for us as a world. You have to remember the privilege you have had; you have to protect the advantages of mind, body, and spirit which have woven themselves into you. All these and more can frame for you the work that lies ahead. The benefits of your young life should not be rare.

Respect people. Be precious with their humanity. Perfect your ability to bring these tendencies out in others.

Finally, be nice to your families. As you return to the places you call home and to the people whose emotions and identities are so inextricably bound to you, remember that it is YOU who have changed more than them. If they seem to be different, act different, or not understand you, it is probably you and not them that is to blame. Just be grateful that they care, and that they will care tomorrow.