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    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online


Graduation is Pointless, Right?

Musings on the meanings of graduation ceremonies.

May 3, 2015

Wendy Robinson is a PhD candidate in higher education at Iowa State University. You can find her on Twitter @wendyrmonkey.


Some people think of graduation and are filled with visions of pomp and circumstance, perhaps picturing bright-eyed scholars, clad in regalia and ready to change the world with all of their hard-earned knowledge. I think of graduation ceremonies and am filled with a sense of dread.

Graduation ceremonies seem to combine many of my least favorite things in life: uncomfortable chairs, being hot, waiting in long lines, listening to boring speakers (alas, no Hollywood heartthrobs have ever spoken at a ceremony I’ve attended), and shelling out still more money to rent or purchase the ridiculously expensive regalia associated with earning a doctorate. I may have been scarred by my high school graduation ceremony which, in the days before weighted GPAs, featured no fewer than 14 valedictorians, all of whom made a speech. One of them read a children’s book to us while another got so nervous she burst into tears and sobbed her whole way through. It was a long night.

Even setting aside the physical and financial annoyances, I’m not sure that graduation ceremonies really mean that much to me. For me, once I have completed my degree requirements, I am DONE and ready to move on to the next phase of my life—cap and gown not required. Also, in a culture in which my first grader has already had three graduation ceremonies (yes, it turns out pre-K graduation is a thing, complete with crying parents and grandparents bringing presents and flowers), I’m just not sold that it is the milestone ceremony many people make it out to be. Having worked in higher ed for over 15 years and seen the intense preparation that goes into planning the ceremony from the institutional side, I know that it isn’t easy or cheap to make these events come off. And yet, if you look at the average ceremony, you’ll see an audience full of be-robed students ignoring the speakers in favor of smuggled-in smart phones and trying to figure out how to escape once they get their diplomas so they don’t have to sit through the rest of the ceremony.

Honestly, I’d rather skip it all and go straight to the party.

So, after all of this dismissive talk, it may surprise you to hear that I am thinking seriously about participating in my own hooding and graduation ceremony when the time comes. I have two primary reasons for this. Their names are Miles and Evelyn.

Being a grad student and a parent means a lot of time away from home, working on things that are basically invisible to my six- and three-year-old. They know that “Mommy has school” often means I’m gone for two or three days at a time and that I miss things like school field trips and swim lessons. They are far too young to understand the nature of my research or why there are so many books with no pictures scattered around the house. I’ve often joked that I am in a hurry to finish my dissertation because I want to be done before they are old enough to realize I’m neglecting them.

I find myself wondering if participating in graduation with my children in attendance will ultimately mean something to them, even if it doesn’t mean anything to me. Will it help them see tangible evidence that all of my time away meant something? Will the image of me in regalia stick in their minds and help them remember as they get older that I’m not “just a mom” but that I have a life and passions of my own? Will attending communicate something to my daughter especially, perhaps an image she can remember when she encounters a culture that so often tells girls that their main job is to be pretty?

When I finished my undergraduate degree, I didn’t plan on attending the ceremony until my parents announced that they were driving 2000 miles to see it and damn it if they weren’t going to watch their daughter be the first in the family to graduate. And maybe that is why, even with the hassles and the costs, we keep having these ceremonies: so that we can remember that while the graduate did the work, they were never alone on the journey. While the student might feel done once the last paper is submitted, maybe it takes all the hoopla for everyone else to feel complete, to see the work of supporting their student completed.

Maybe there is value enough in that.

(I still don’t want to spend $900 on regalia, though.)

What do you think of graduation ceremonies? Were they meaningful to you? If you skipped yours, do you have any regrets?

[Photo by Pixabay and used under Creative Commons License.]


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