Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Commencements: What Would You Tell Graduating Students?

John N. Gardner

I have just delivered a few days ago a commencement address. Have lost track of how many of these I have done, at least a dozen or more. And I have attended several hundred of these ceremonies in my career. And I have loved every one of them.

They are far better than weddings because everybody ends up making and taking some vows. And there are so many more people in the ritual for whom this is such an important rite of passage. It’s like everybody in the hall graduates in some way in that ceremony—not so in weddings.

Even if you are not about to give such an address, I think it is a useful exercise to think about what would YOU tell the students.

The most challenging commencement talk I ever gave was one to a graduating class of students in a prison college program. All seven of the graduates were serving hard time in the South Carolina maximum security penitentiary. Four of them were serving life sentences for capital offenses. So I couldn’t tell them to “go forth” and the other platitude of “the truth shall set you free” was not literally operative either. But I worked harder on that speech than probably any I have ever given. And it was a moving experience. And those families of the graduates were just as proud of their graduates as any of the traditional commencements I have ever participated in.

Back to my original question: what would YOU tell your students?

Of course, the temptation for the older to give the younger is irresistible for most of us. So what advice would you give them?

Given that commencement forever will be a benchmark point in time in the graduates’ lives, what do you tell them about the era in which they are graduating.

Personally, I think it is important to remind graduates of who helped them get there. And I spend a lot of time giving thanks to the key stakeholders and investors in this accomplishment. And I urge them to give thanks to certain types of people in their college experience. And I urge them to reflect on the current state of our country and remind them that now they are going to serve our country. But this is just my approach. What would you tell the graduates?

Please don’t dismiss my question because you are not slated in the near term to give a commencement address because I think you could use your ideas in response to the question for something else. This fall new students will be joining you, returning students too. Much of what you might say to departing students can apply to new and continuing students. There is much in common to beginning and ending rituals and how the elders of the tribe communicate to the developing new members of the clan. It’s all about laying out for them a vision of what really matters. They need our help. That’s why they are there.


  1. I understand and appreciate the value of this exercise. But it seems to overstate the importance of graduation, at least for me. I don't even recall who spoke at my graduation ceremonies and I certainly don't remember what they said. Maybe I'm an outlier and this really is a never-forgotten event for everyone else but it wasn't for me.

    Similar thoughts occur to me quite often when reading your posts, John, particularly when you describe your own past and how it continues to resonate in your present. Neither my undergraduate nor my Master's experiences imprinted themselves on my heart and in my life the way your experiences seem to have done for you. I wasn't heavily involved in anything and I feel no special connection to either of my alma maters. And I don't feel like a bad person and I don't feel regretful for having walked a different path.

    But your posts make me wonder how we - educators who know the positive impact of involvement and engagement - understand and view the uninvolved, uncommitted students on our campuses. I get the impression from some of my student affairs colleagues that sometimes those students are viewed with pity and even a bit of scorn because they choose not engage in our favored activities in our chosen environment. And that saddens me, especially because we preach the benefits of diversity and choice.

  2. Interesting comment by KRGuidry. He makes a good point in that, as educators, we have to be careful not to project our own experiences or aspirations onto the students we associate with. And, undoubtedly, diversity and choice are important aspects of a university community.

    However, a university is, by definition, a community. Accordingly, when a student makes a choice to enroll as a university student, they are also making a commitment to become a member of that community and to participate in the practices of the community and to uphold its ideals. Universities have always been intended to be gathering places where scholars can come together to both learn from and teach one another.

    Although students will sometimes choose to be "uninvolved and uncommitted," it seems slightly selfish to do nothing more than attend class lectures, complete assignments, and then get out without making any attempt to invest in or contribute to the community of which they are a part. And, it runs counter to the commitment they made when they decided to "matriculate" at the university.

    I'm not saying that every student needs to be in a campus club or go to the football games. What I am saying is that there are diverse ways to become involved on a campus, from service-learning, to studying with classmates, to working in the on-campus burger joint. And, one of our roles as educators is to encourage and facilitate all students' participation in our learning communities. And, that may be particularly true of those students who come onto campus with an initial tendency towards being "uninvolved" and "uncommitted." The key, and maybe this is what KRGuidry is getting at, is in extending those invitations in skillful, compassionate, and respectful ways.

    It would also help if we stopped "recruiting" students in the traditional ways and did a better job of helping them understand what kind of commitment they are making when they make the choice to come to our campuses. "Recruiting" needs to be balanced with a healthy dose of "educating," before they've even stepped on campus or registered for their first class.