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.