College graduations are happily sobering times for most families. They are times for family reflections, sadness and gladness, prayers answered, knowing missions have been completed and the culmination of a determined commitment to prove one’s self worthy of scholarship in the hallowed halls of prestigious thinkers. Somebody’s “child” has fulfilled a family dream, and the ticket to a commencement ceremony of a loved one is the hottest ticket of one’s life. While graduations have become passé’ and informal for some, the older generations dress up for the occasion like they’re going to church on Easter Sunday and praise, and shake, and shout, “Thank ya, Lordie” just as much. I always wondered why my Uncle Buddy always wore a tie to everybody’s graduation. He said it was to “honor them” for achieving something very special.
You re-live your own experience every time you attend a college commencement, as I did this past weekend — witnessing my niece receive her Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications from Howard University. Watching my sister half panicked, for two days, to make sure nobody missed her oldest child graduating from college was something only a parent of a college grad could appreciate. Getting tickets for 23 out-of-town guests is a major chore these days, when colleges now limit the number of commencement tickets to between four and six. My sister made it happen, though. Everybody was up at 6 a.m. to make the 10 o’clock commencement. Everybody had firm instructions to be in the hotel lobby by 7:30 in the morning and sister gave us all that look like, “I ain’t playin’ wit y’all. Don’t miss my baby’s graduation.” And everybody was there at 7:30. Everybody, that is, except the graduate herself who was asleep somewhere because she partied all night, the night before graduation. Our children like pushing their parents to the brink of insanity. My niece is no different — but she was where she was supposed to be when the commencement started, right in line with the rest of her graduating classmates.
College graduations are the legitimization of family legacies. To have a college graduate in the family means that the family name is “on the record” SOMEWHERE in the annuals of American history in some accredited institution of higher learning. It is a source of immense pride on the part of families who drive and fly and bus and walk to “their people’s” graduation. The quibbling about who’s gonna sit where is non-existent as it’s “a given” that Mom, Dad and the Grandparents get the best seats and everybody else gets what they get. For most times you really can’t see anyway but just want to hear your people’s name called. The audience filled with “puffed-up breast bones” and happy sighs are sights unmatched.
A Howard University commencement is one of the “special ones,” steeped in the rich traditions usually reserved for the Ivy League schools. For Howard has a deep and determined commitment to create an academic path for the historically excluded. On this weekend, Howard conferred over 1,600 B.A. degrees, over 500 M.A. or M.S. degrees, and over 400 Ph.D.s. (including seven honorary doctorates that included Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Actor Hill Harper, and TV Anchor Robin Roberts) Over 2,500 graduates mastered the rigor and survived the ring of competing ideas to receive their paper to accredit them as college graduates. And the same was happening all over the country.
A college degree is never to be taken lightly. The only ones who do are those who don’t have one or those that didn’t have the fortitude to get one. But if you are fortunate enough to be in the 25% of the American population to have a college degree, or in the two-percenters who have a Masters degree or the one-percenters with a Doctorate or Professional Degree (J.D., M.D.), you know that the possession of one is a life-altering experience. As in anything in life, it’s not about where you started, but where you finish. It’s not so much about where you’ve been, but where you’re heading. The exception is, of course, unless you’ve been to college. For your college past will be the life-long tie to your future and beyond. It is your family’s legacy and your children’s legacy.
My niece’s parents are both Howard graduates. They met at Howard, graduated from Howard, got married, had children and sent their oldest child to Howard. The younger two are likely to follow. They get excited going back to their college campus; for reunions, parent visits and, yes, graduations. For the pomp and circumstance of this college graduation ceremony was steeped in tradition but full of the “freshness” of the day as new college graduates strolled down the center aisle, robes flowing-tassels swinging as they found new ways to spruce up the otherwise boring traditional “cap and gown” attire.
These new graduates faces were flushed with both promise and uncertainty as they embraced their intellectual “coming out” party before their teachers, their family, their friends and the world. Many of them left home as children, with their parents ideas of the world, and are now graduating “grown” with ideas of their own–for college has touched them with the rigors of the real world, only a taste of what life is yet to bring in testing their knowledge, their maturity, their idealism, their fortitude and their destinies beyond what they, themselves can, and will, ever imagine. This short stroll before for the academe of their campus was just the beginning of a long walk in the realities of a highly competitive, challenged life. But college graduation arms them with the confidence of knowing that they can compete with the best and a determination to find a commitment to succeed. It’s a reflection we all re-live every time we see this experience invested in others.
My niece couldn’t have given her mother no greater Mother’s Day gift, and my mother, her maternal grandmother, no greater Mother’s Day gift than to have watched her graduate from college. It made me prouder to watch family achieve such a culmination. Now I know how my Uncle Buddy felt. I wore a tie to give honor to my niece’s special accomplishment. Earning a college degree and graduating from college is a special accomplishment. Not one to be taken lightly. Trust me, I don’t.
Anthony Asadullah Samad, Ph.D., is a national columnist, managing director of the Urban Issues Forum and author of the upcoming book, REAL EYEZ: Race, Reality and Politics in 21 Century Politics. He can be reached at www.AnthonySamad.com
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