Last weekend, I had the privilege of attending the graduation ceremony of a truly gigantic and prestigious state school. I froze my butt off as I watched several enthusiastic deans confer degrees onto thousands of undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. For all of them, that chapter of their lives was now closed. They were all now facing a fresh page.
It was a lovely graduation. The joy of the students and their families was palpable, their energy warming the cool April air. But, there was a small cloud hovering over the ceremony. I am not speaking literally. Literally, there were many gigantic clouds hanging over the ceremony and they unleashed their rain with indifference a few hours later. The metaphorical cloud was nothing that fantastic.
When I attended graduations in the mid-2000s, the tone of the event was uninhibited optimism. This was before the recession, before record un- and underemployment among recent college graduates, before the 99 percent and Occupy. This was back when getting out of a decent college meant getting a decent job. The joy of the day could not be tempered with realistic views of the future because, by and large, the future was bright.
The graduation I attended, even though it was at a top university with excellent name recognition, was not so completely optimistic. The speakers referenced the difficulties the graduates were likely to face. They called upon “gumption” and hard work and gave the students advice in long list form. There was plenty of celebration, but there was no denying the somewhat bleaker world these students were going to face. For these students, the fresh page not only meant a new beginning, but also new challenges. Like the speakers said, they were going to need gumption.
I do not mean to sound wholly doom-and-gloom, though my worldview does allot a fair bit of space for healthy neurosis. Great things are going to happen to these students and these students will make great things happen. But as I think about the ceremony, I wonder if those of us in academia are doing enough to prepare these students for the world they are about to face.
I have always been amazed with the intelligence, creativity and enthusiasm of the students I interact with. I want something better for them than debt and un- or underemployment. Graduation ceremonies should be a time of complete celebration, a time to reflect on one’s accomplishments and growth. I would say that these students deserve better, but the truth is that we all deserve better. Something’s got to change or that small metaphorical rain cloud with turn into a nasty storm.