Commencements and Graduations

I was often confused by the word commencement. It means to begin, yet commencement ceremonies seem to celebrate an ending – a graduation. It is really the intersection of both – an ending and a beginning. I recently posted a Menah’s Matinee: Music and Musings on Pomp and Circumstance.

A Fun Menah’s Matinee

In the Menah’s Matinee, I share the speech that my daughter, Raebekkah, delivered for her college graduation from the University of Illinois. She graduated from college in 3 years, when she was just 19 years old! Her speech is so full of wisdom. You can watch her deliver it in the blog post below. Her messages were so powerful: dominate the field, never stop toiling, and go Illini! I am struck by how composed and thoughtful she was, at such a young age, and how purposeful and focused her message was on actualizing our potential as individuals.

We started taking graduations (and so much else) for granted before the pandemic. We just knew we would be gathering in person and celebrating achievement. And then, the pandemic shut us up, told us sit down and be quiet, and so many students lost that moment, that special moment, of hearing their names said for the world to here, to be recognized and celebrated. In compassion for the Virginia Tech graduates who couldn’t walk across the stage last year, I wrote a special post for them, called, “Hokies, Carry Your Superpowers.” I reflected on the amazing qualities that a Virginia Tech experiences gives its students:

The Hokie community is a unique and special community.  It builds certain inalienable characteristics, by virtue of being part of Virginia Tech. I don’t know how it happens, but it actually does.  It is an intangible experience, but over time, the air of Blacksburg settles on you and clothes you with certain special superpowers.

One of those qualities is compassion.  Ut Prosim (that I may serve) is our motto.  It is about serving others, being selfless, being thoughtful.  There is a beautiful spirit of compassion at Virginia Tech.

Another is teamwork. Virginia Tech’s culture encourages teamwork, and working in teams and supporting others.

Extraordinary kindness and friendliness.  There’s a kindness here at Virginia Tech.  You can feel it in the ether. It is genuine.

A little toughness.  Virginia Tech encourages just a little bit of toughness.  I don’t know if it because we are one of six military colleges, but I think every Virginia Tech graduate has a little bit of built-in toughness.  Maybe it is because we are always walking across and through and over a Drillfield, especially in the winter that we have just had to build up a little bit of toughness, but we all have it.

Resilience.  Along with that toughness, there is resilience.  We are resilient,  We can overcome small things and big things and keep going.  There’s a persistence that we develop at VT. 

Fun.  At Virginia Tech, we like to laugh and have fun.  We have the Hokie Bird, for goodness sake, as our mascot.  The HokieBird epitomizes fun.  We will need to carry our fun with us as we go forward in life.

Humility.  There’s a quiet, understated humility, though, that rides along side a commitment to excellence.  I remember a recruiter once told me he loved recruiting VT students because they were humble and gracious.

Commitment to excellence and creativity.  At Virginia Tech, there is a spirit of innovation and creativity.  Though we are humble, we are not ashamed to put our work out there, on display, to share our gifts with others and the world. 

Hard work.  We work hard. I see it everyday with students, faculty, and staff.  There’s a dedication and passion to who we are and what we stand for.

So, compassion, teamwork, extraordinary kindness and friendliness, a little toughness, resilience, fun, humility, excellence and creativity and hard work.

That’s a lot of strength and power – superpowers — that you have gotten from Virginia Tech.  And so, I hope you will carry these qualities with you as Hokies as you go off to your next adventure. 

See the entire post below:

I’ve had many proud moments around graduations. Certainly watching my children walk across the stage for their bachelor’s degree, and Raebekkah for her master’s degree, were proud moments. But, it has not just been my children’s graduations, but other friends and family that I have enjoyed. I remember being particularly proud when two Puerto Rican friends graduated with their MBA and PhD. I was just thrilled, knowing what it meant to go to school while also working full-time. At the MBA graduation, the dean of the school told the families there could be no celebration, hooping and hollering. Are you kidding me? We straight up ignored him and when our friend crossed the stage, we screamed! Another little girl, when her daddy walked across the stage, softly, said, “DADDY,” and we all cheered for him. Graduations are meant for celebration!

There was another special “graduation” moment for me when one of my colleagues at Virginia Tech graduated.

Black men making a difference at Virginia Tech

Andrew Alston was a colleague in the Office for Inclusion and Diversity and his persistence in finishing his degree was so inspiring to me. He was working full time and taking classes, often up to 20 hours, while just pushing through. I was just so proud of him and for him. He is now moving on from OID to Deloitte! Just a wonderful success story.

I got to celebrate with his family yesterday. I’m so glad Virginia Tech allowed 2020 graduates to walk and be cheered and hear their name called!

These success stories, particularly for people of color, must be celebrated. The barriers to success are very real and the graduation rates for many student of color are below those of White students. Any student who leaves college without a degree is only a high school graduate and often a high school graduate with college debt. This is why it is imperative that higher education institutions accept the responsiblity of supporting all students, from whatever background, to complete their degrees, with as minimal amount of debt as possible, so that they can go forth and make a difference in the world, in whatever their chosen field.

My son, Emmanuel’s chosen field, is art.

So many gifted arts are discouraged from pursuing their passion, but we need more artists, dancers, musicians, poets in the world. Universities must continue to be places that train minds, spirits, bodies, and souls, and places that send forth individuals into the world committed to making a difference. We need more students to graduate with college degrees and we need to continue to review and revise our curriculums so that our graduates are really prepared to make a difference. I continue to think about the need for us to work on an alternative curriculum focused on basic human values.

As we celebrate beginning and endings, I hope we can commit to lifelong learning, and lifelong celebrations of beginnings and endings.