I am writing in the midst of “celebration season” (a phrase coined by my colleague Kia Bentley) here in academia. Yesterday, we celebrated our doctoral graduates and award winners in our school of social work. This morning, I shall don my vibrant green academic regalia and process in my robe through two days of graduation ceremonies, first for our School of Social Work and then for the full University. The flowing parade of academic regalia, the meaning of colors and stripes and sleeve length and cuff-shapes and hat points, the symbolism of higher education institutionalized across generations of time and tradition. It is simultaneously regal and ridiculous; celebratory and melancholy; this academic tradition truly is the ritual demarcation of both endings and beginnings.
I realize I am waxing poetic (and perhaps over-dramatic) in this particular reflection, but I actually love commencement. So, I wanted to reflect back on some memorable moments from my own past when, either at the time or in retrospect, the commencement of new beginnings truly did shine a small point of light on my path.
High school graduation now quickly approaches a 25 year mark for me, which seems difficult to imagine. I was full of promise, and frankly, full of myself. The joy of adolescence. I remember giving the opening salutatorian address, and bringing flowers to bestow on a few close friends. But, looking back, the day itself marks sharp transition between the person I was and the person I would become. The next day (literally) I started training as a nursing assistant and began what would eventually become a long and winding career path in health and human service. I had no idea what I was in for among this big world of many different kinds of people, and I was too naive to care. Forward motion was simply moving out for me, and only in retrospect do I wish I had done some things differently, to appreciate those who were around me in different ways. Mercifully, being 18 is a phase that passes for all of us, so it is joyful in our adulthood to look back on those years and see who we moved on to become.
My undergraduate graduation was a blip in time, marked for me by the joy of being with my classmates on the floor of the giant Memorial Auditorium in Buffalo. I also remember spotting my family in the crowd long before they spotted me, and laughing with my friends as my family tried to get the wrong person…some unknown other female in a long black down, square hat, and curly hair…to wave back to them. We finally found each other by creating a wave of my friends standing up and calling out. I didn’t graduate from the same college I had started attending, and my transfer mid-college from a small, religious school into a public state college alongside very busy state of working, finishing classes, paying my bills and charting my own course gave me a legitimate pride in having reached an independent goal. But, I had found a career path I loved and I was ready to take on changing the world. I was close with a group of working students, and we stuck tight for moral support. I was headed to graduate school and had lined up housing, a job, and a summer internship in a new city where I was headed the next week. A fresh beginning. That graduation was fun and frivolous with beach balls and confetti, hundreds of people moving into the world together. It is a sweet reminder of how accomplishment feels, and how much support is needed to achieve one’s goals.
My MSW graduation from Syracuse is deeply memorable. I thought that would be my last graduation, actually. My graduate degree, age 22. I was grateful to have earned it, and it was a first in my family. Like I celebrate now with my own students, there was a graduation ceremony from my home department as well as a University Commencement ceremony. I most fondly recall University commencement, surprisingly. I had affixed bright pink wings to my flat hat so my family could find me this time. I walked with a cohort of my friends and we sat together, almost dumbfounded that our year of constant and intense work was finally coming to a close. We were all about to be gainfully employed as social workers in different areas of the state and the county, and although we were practically inseparable then, I realize now with sadness that I have lost contact with all of them. Perhaps this is a marker of graduate education…the focus shifts from ourselves to our careers. I have no doubt that the intensity of that time produced what I needed to propel into career leadership. My fondest memory, though, was actually walking out of part of graduation with my dear friend who started not feeling well. She was deeply important and beloved to me, and that was the last day I would see her as she started a new life in Hawaii. This sticks out in my mind for a lot of personal reasons, but also because of the shift to respond to what is needed to support others is a transition of life itself. It is all wrapped up in that day for me, commencing a new perspective on life. This is the graduation ceremony I most wish I could go back to, and to tell us to stop and savor. Savor life. Savor each other.
But life moved ahead with lightening speed.
It was over a decade later when I put on any academic robes again. I purchased my academic regalia before my PhD graduation. No more flat hats and black folded polyester gowns. I was fitted and measured for this vibrant green gown made especially for Washington University. I had been in the audience at graduation every year of my doctoral program. It was like an adrenaline boost for my intellectual curiosity, and as I applauded each of my program colleagues I would remind myself to tenaciously move forward. The PhD is a marathon, and you will only finish if you find inner endurance. I had learned my lessons. I savored every moment of this graduation. I remember the faces of my friends, the presence of my mentors. I remember my spouse and my daughter, who was very young at the time but overjoyed to see all the pomp and circumstance. I had tears in my eyes when I was “hooded” by my dissertation chair. I keep close with her, with other faculty, with my academic peers who shared this experience with me. We are like family with our stories and laughter and tears. This was the commencement into academia, where I still reside. We commenced collegiality.
I relive this emotion every May, now. I am about to put on the academic robes that are part of my professional wardrobe. To affix my eight sided hat and hood. To have the delight of hooding my own graduating students. I laugh with them, I myself tear up. Their journeys commence, and mine continues. And we have the joy of continuing as colleagues moving through this world together. And in this ritual, I savor the fact that our paths have crossed and that I will continue to remain connected and share their successes and challenges.