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Nancy Napier: Graduation: Groans or Glee?

Walk around a university campus this time of year and you’ll hear groans and gleeful shrieks. Some students are in the throes of final exams (groans). Others sit in a sunny quadrangle punching their fists in the air or lying flat on the grass in snow angel positions, gleeful that they are finished at last.

And when the talk comes around to the graduation ceremony, groans and glee arise yet again. Some students, and alas many faculty members, complain about the three hour ceremony of sitting in a large auditorium or stadium, listening to a few speeches, before watching 2000+ students walk across the front of the room to receive their diplomas. The ceremony is indeed long and repetitive (name called, student strolls up to the President or Provost who slaps the diploma into the student’s hand and shakes the other hand, and they both smile at a video camera that is streaming the entire three hours.) Oh my yes, it can be tedious.

On the other hand, some students and all families are gleeful. And so I reckon that those of us who are part of the university can surely spend three hours of our lives to make that glee last a while longer for the supporters in the stands who are thrilled for the graduates on the floor.

When else do 10,000 people come to watch a ceremony where each one of them has a touch point with at least one of the more than 2000 people on the floor? Not in a sports event. Not in a political rally. Not in a concert.

It’s a ceremony that is in some ways quite serious but is for the most part joyful. Those who are the focus of the ceremony wear black gowns--bachelors, masters, doctoral students as well as faculty members. I know they are medieval in nature but to me those gowns also represent a way to equalize us so that we are all part of a larger scholarly community. By not being “flashy,” the robes signify a seriousness of purpose, and dignity of the hard job of learning.

At graduation, we gather to celebrate collectively the achievements of those who are graduating and those who were there for the journey. As I watch each student march forward, I notice how family members come down to the railings to get photos, and to wave and clap for their one candidate, the most important person in the room to them.

And then I calculate the hours that went into reaching that day. If each supporter in the stands spent, conservatively, 50 hours over the course of the life of the graduate’s college career (that might be an average of 10 hour a year), we’re looking at half a million hours of time spent supporting those walking across the stage to receive diplomas. So, surely I can spend three hours to honor those supporters and the students, and to thank them for allowing me to be a small part of their tough journey and their gleeful celebration.