Women In Academia

Women in Academia: Graduation

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.

4 replies on “Women in Academia: Graduation”

My undergrad graduation was in ’10 (my masters graduation is in two weeks), and the school had a speaker from the econ/business department who basically ranted for 15 minutes on how we were all doomed and how worthless college was. Maybe they got the speaker for orientation and graduation mixed up, it wasn’t the best message after we all had put in 4+ years. I’m expecting something similar for our hooding ceremony, too.

Oh, interesting. I graduated HS in ’00 and college in ’04 so my graduations actually straddled the early ’00s slump. My high school graduation amounted to basically “OH MY GOD YOU GUYS ARE GOING TO CHANGE THE WORLD!” I remember (perhaps more guarded) general optimism at college graduation, at least in the speeches given and among my social circle.

It’s all very depressing. I got a liberal arts degree, which shouldn’t have prepared me to do anything lucrative, but I’ve don’t okay precisely because of my liberal arts background. I think it makes me adaptable and willing to jump between specialties.

That said, I know plenty of people who have graduated and have terrible prospects. I do think there needs to be additional focus on degrees that aren’t reliant on college. Not everyone fits in with college and not every career needs college training and it often feels as if the options are limited for people. For example, my dad got into the stock market in the early ’80s with just a high-school diploma and several years of ski patrol under his belt. He built a very successful career without a college degree, but someone entering his field now will  probably need to have the B.A. even though building success doesn’t necessarily require that degree.

It’s a complicated conundrum.

My undergraduate graduation felt pretty muted, because the diploma holder they gave us had a  nice sheet of paper that said “This is where your diploma will go IF YOU PASS YOUR SHIT”

Well, it didn’t say “shit,” but that was basically the idea. Since I had a professor that semester who I just know would have used any excuse he had to give me an incomplete, I was concerned.

Thank god(s) I didn’t give him that excuse, and thank god(s) for the friend that mentioned I didn’t do a thing that the professor had required (and didn’t tell me about) before it was too late to do the assignment.

Overall, though, much of the graduation felt muted the way you describe. People weren’t exactly brimming with excitement, and considering the prospects of recent college graduates (mine was last May!), I don’t blame them.

Leave a Reply