May 10, 2010
I distinctly remember when I graduated from high school, thinking that commencement was a funny name for the ceremony. High school graduation seemed so much more of an ending than a beginning--why would you call it commencement?
I thought about that again when I graduated from college with my bachelor's degree. At the time, graduation felt like the end of security. During the time I was in college, my parents paid my way. Graduation was a marker of being out on my own, finding a job, and paying my bills.
Eventually, I found my way through two master's degrees, and my family made me go to two more commencement ceremonies. I remember very little from these events, except that Donna Shalala was the speaker at one, the same one I'm told was on a cold and rainy day in the pacific northwest. The second of these commencement ceremonies was on a sunny August day, and there was jazz music. But both of these again felt more like an ending instead of a beginning...I've never thought of finishing a degree as an opportunity to move on to something new. Maybe I've been living my life in the past instead of the present? Of maybe all of these commencements weren't really commencements at all, but just a temporary respite on the way to something more?
This past Friday, on a cold and rainy day, I participated in my final commencement. Beforehand, I attended a little reception thrown by my department. My advisor wasn't there, of course. The department chair, who is kindly but doesn't know me, mispronounced my name when he introduced me. I didn't really know anyone, except for one favorite professor who couldn't attend the ceremony today because of a family obligation. None of this mattered.
When you graduate with your doctorate, you get to wear a hood made of velvet. The velvet color varies, depending on your degree. In my case, it was dark blue, for the doctor of philosophy. At the University of Minnesota, the satin lining on the inside is maroon and gold. And, here at the U of M, you can choose the standard robe (black) or the centennial robe (red). Someday, if I choose to become faculty somewhere, I might purchase the centennial robe, but right now, I am content to have the doctoral robe of the former academic dean of General College. I did buy the centennial tam instead of the traditional mortarboard, though.
The talking part of the ceremony was short. The address was given by a geography professor who talked about graduate degrees and global engagement. It was interesting, but not all that accessible to my family. It didn't matter.
I was in the back of the line of maybe 300 or more doctoral degrees given out on that day. Eventually they called my name, and I was hooded for the first time. I don't know who the faculty were who did the hooding, although I think one is the chair of the educational psychology department. It didn't matter.
I walked across the stage and got my diploma cover, which I don't need since my diploma is already framed and on display in my office (doctoral degrees are awarded monthly--and mine's been done for awhile now). Some people got to get hugs or handshakes from faculty in their departments who were there for this auspicious occasion. I did not have anyone standing there, eager to hug me or shake my hand. It didn't matter.
I walked off the stage, and standing there at the end was C, eager to hug and kiss me. My parents, who were in the most awesome reserved seating, looked on with pride. THAT mattered.
When it was all done, I walked out with my little girl and my son, who have a doctor for a mother. They say that the educational attainment of the mother is the most important factor in the social mobility of a child. J and S, I might not have even imagined your very existence back when I was graduating from high school, and my bachelor's, and my master's, but don't think for a minute that I didn't do it all for you, because I did. Because THAT matters.
So, I walked out of that auditorium wearing my doctoral clothes proudly, holding the hand of my son. I did it! I accomplished an important life goal. And now, as I look forward to what comes next, I understand the meaning of commencement. I think I just didn't get it before because I wasn't really done. I wasn't ready to commence.