Saturday, May 10, 2008


Sitting through more than two hours of commencement while dozens of final exams are at home waiting to be graded is hardly anyone's idea of fun. The thought of listening to another one over a cell phone, even if it is that of my niece, is mind-numbing. (Maybe if her graduation was in June, after ours had worn off, as was the case for their HS graduation ceremonies.)

Oddly, however, it is the shortest part of our ceremony that is the worst. The longest part, the calling of the names as each student gets 15 seconds of fame all alone on the stage, is the best. Even when I don't know most of them, the audience reminds me of why our CC is such a big deal in the community. And some are incredibly special.

This year was no different.

The commencement speaker included at least one well-worn cliche ("when you come to a fork in the road ... take it" - Yogi Berra) and another ("statistics say you will earn an extra million dollars with your AA degree") that is becoming more common as the cost of tuition increases. The student speaker once again had an inspirational background and a mercifully short speech. The prayer was predictable, although a few years ago we had a keeper: the preacher also thanked the Lord for financial aid, bringing forth shouts of praise from the audience (from the black-church part, that is).

I watched three of my students walk across with a perfect 4.0 average. That is no small feat when it includes both semesters of my calc-based physics class and three semesters of calculus from an equally demanding math department. All three of those were the kind of student that needs a community college. Two are only in college because they got laid off when a high-tech manufacturer closed down and moved away. They also had perfect a HW grade (all 575 problems over two semesters). The other, just as sharp, needed the personal attention we offer in our intro classes. You see, his father was a police officer who died in the line of duty. That is a lot to carry on your shoulders through your teen years and on to college.

It was also a joy to watch another, a former resident of the Hotel for Felons, walk across the stage to pick up his degree. Diligent, smart (had once been too smart for his own good when it came to being able to handle cocaine), and working a full-time day job as an electrician as well as going to college. He has a rather different perspective on the party crowd at Wannabe Flagship.

And there were others. The students I had only known as an academic adviser, or the ones I helped struggle through a gen-ed science class.

But most of all, there were the ones who are the first in their family to earn any kind of college degree. Anyone who says that there isn't community support for education in some minority neighborhoods needs to attend our graduation ceremony. It is there, in the stands, shouting and (literally) dancing in their seats as their daughter, sister, or mother (sometimes all three) (or brother, father, or son) had their moment in the spotlight. They take up three or four rows even when the graduate is not the speaker -- and many wear their Sunday finest.

And that last part is what is so different from where I went to college. There was never any question that I would attend college and graduate in four years. The same was true of the kids I hung out with. My PhD changed my life, but college didn't, certainly not the way it has changed the future for these kids. They make teaching here a really special experience, but I didn't realize how special until I attended my first graduation.

Note added:
Dr. Crazy wrote a great article about why she enjoys attending graduation that I highly recommend.

No comments: