Between You and Me: Graduation messages have changed with time and generations.
By Leah S. Dunaief
This past weekend was both fabulous and exhausting. We drove nine hours down to Virginia to celebrate with my granddaughter as she graduated from college, and with my son and daughter-in-law, her parents, who helped make it happen. Both sides of the family were represented, and we were all in, cheering, laughing, eating, strolling and talking, talking, talking for two days straight, not counting our travel days.
We were certainly not alone enjoying this milestone. I never saw so much traffic on the roads between here and Virginia, both going and coming, and we theorized it was all those families and all those graduates driving the highways on this college graduation weekend in May.
The joy of a graduation from college spans generations. Those who seemed to feel the accomplishment most, perhaps, were the families of first-generation graduates, whose members would often boast to anyone listening, “She’s the first to graduate.” We all cheered, clapped, and if we could, whistled during those 30 seconds when our loved one crossed the stage, was handed the diploma, smiled for the camera, then returned to his or her seat.
Predictably, we heard lots of speeches. Those who received honorary doctorates, the president of the college, the chancellor, the student representative, the keynote speaker, all addressed the graduating class and their guests with words of wisdom that, as I recall from my graduation, were promptly ignored. For us then, the tone, however, was hopeful and positive.
This time, though, there were two differences that I heard. The first was a recognition that the world for these young people had changed, both physically and societally. The country was sadly divided, and climate change was altering the globe. People were not listening to each other. That they might enjoy better lives than their parents because their future was bright was never mentioned.
These graduates had their lives and their studies interrupted by the pandemic and were captive of their computers for part of their learning. The message was that they had lost out in their four years, lost the easy camaraderie of uninterrupted campus life and the person-to-person contact with their classmates and professors. There was some reference to overcoming challenges and resilience, but on the whole, there was none of the usual comments as to how this next generation was going to make the world a better place. It seemed the goal was just to cope.
The other difference from the educators was, to me, defensive. Stressed was the need and importance of education. Of course, they were preaching to the choir. But still, the comment rang out, “When you have forgotten all [the facts] that you have learned, what you will have left is education.” More than once, the reference was to having learned how to think analytically as being the major benefit of their college years.
I did get a kick out of one dean, who referred in her talk to the various world events that had occurred during the past four years. We listened attentively because we all experienced them. And when she was concluding, she confessed that almost the whole speech had been written by ChatGPT. We laughed but not without a tinge of concern for future college students.
As always, at graduations, it is a happy and also a sad time for the graduates. There is a lot of “goodbye.” They are leaving behind those they had come to know and places that had become as familiar to them as their dorm rooms: where they shopped for food, where they retreated to study, where they played volleyball, where they enjoyed their “midnight snacks” that were probably well beyond midnight.
Our granddaughter keenly felt the yin and yang of moving on. She tried to spend time with us even as she was drawn to the gatherings and parties on campus of her friends and roommates. I wanted to tell her that this time was a beginning, more than an end, and that she would be taking the best with her into the next chapter.
But I didn’t. She had already heard enough speeches.