I Love College Commencements, and the Speeches Are the Least of It
Because I’m a college professor, I’ve been going to graduations for most of my working life. In the spirit of a theatrical critic, I consider myself the authority upon which the opening speeches will be. conquer the audience and which one will drop.
I have even developed an eye for assessing how best a student can get a laugh from other students when receiving a diploma from a serious-looking principal. But the truth is, I like everything to begin with. I don’t mind them at all. What reminds me of are the parents I met after the diploma was awarded.
I’ve heard some great opening speeches at the university where I teach, but none have ever touched me as much as the usual conversations I have with parents.
Parents don’t come to graduation thinking they need to impress the faculty they’re going to meet. If they’re out-of-town parents, they know they’ll likely spend the end of the school day helping to pack their son or daughter’s clothes into the car.
For parents, however, graduation is a source of pride—especially if their son or daughter is the first in the family to earn a college degree. But even with the family falling into debt, the degree seems worth the money at this point in America when only 37.9 percent of people over the age of 25 have a bachelor’s degree.
However, what moves me most about the parents I meet has little to do with the successful path they see their son or daughter taking. What is most moving is the fact that parents realize that for over 20 years their child has been lent, and now a whole new relationship begins.
Even for the most sophisticated parent, this perception is a shock, and what makes the shock worse is that it needs to be hidden. You might cry at the start, but every parent knows that you shouldn’t make your new grad feel guilty about achieving independence.
If a son or daughter is about to graduate or attend professional school, family relationships may last a little longer. A college graduate who qualifies as a dependent can use their parents’ health insurance until age 26. But every parent knows that graduate dependence is fleeting.
This year I have parents from Utah and India to attend the opening ceremony with their daughters coming home for the summer. These parents are among the lucky ones. They were pardoned for the impending separation, but they didn’t fool themselves that things would go back to the way they were.
“When I meet parents on the school lawn, the last thing I try to do is give wise advice.“
As a college graduate before email and the internet, I remember graduation coming as a shock to parents of my generation who had a son or daughter attending a college. studying away from home. As students, none of us were diligent letter writers or great long-distance phone callers. Our roommates as well as boyfriends and girlfriends were largely a mystery to our parents.
Zoom and email have made a change in that regard. Parents today have a much deeper understanding of their children’s personal lives than the family before my email, and it is these parents who have benefited as they themselves have grown up at the time. that the Pill and social ethics lead many young people to regard sexual intimacy as the norm. their teens or early twenties.
In many ways, health concerns have been reversed in recent years thanks to COVID. Most of the students I know are more scared about unknowingly infecting a vulnerable parent or grandparent with COVID than getting infected themselves. In my experience, they are the first generation to feel guilty when they are young and healthy.
When I meet parents on the school lawn, the last thing I try to do is give wise advice. It’s a recipe for being a boring guy. The truth is that during the graduation ceremony, I am feeling a version of the sadness that parents feel even though they have only loaned their sons and daughters for four years. With many of my students, I will email in the future and write suggestions. Some will even visit. Since I teach at a college just outside of New York, I am approachable. But I know, things will never go back to the way they were before college happened.
Nicolaus Mills is a professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence University and the author of Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America’s Growth as a Superpower.