Because I’m a college professor, I’ve been going to commencements for most of my working life. In the spirit of a theater reviewer, I consider myself an authority on which commencement speeches will win over an audience and which will fall flat.
I have even developed an eye for judging the best way a student can get a laugh from other students when accepting a diploma from a serious-looking dean. But the truth is I like all commencements. I’m not in the least jaded about them. What gets to me are the parents I meet after the diplomas have been handed out.
I have heard some great commencement speeches at the college where I teach, but nothing that any speaker has said has ever touched me the way the ordinary conversations I have with parents do.
Parents don’t come to commencement thinking they need to impress the faculty they are meeting. If they are parents from out of town, they know that they will likely spend the end of commencement day dutifully helping to pack their son’s or daughter’s clothes into a car.
With parents, commencements are, nonetheless, a source of pride—especially if a son or daughter is the first in the family to earn a college degree. But even if the family has gone into debt, the degree seems worth the money at this time in America when just 37.9 percent of those over 25 have a bachelor’s degree.
What is most moving to me about the parents I meet has, however, very little to do with the path of success they see a son or daughter on. What is most moving is the realization by parents that for 20-plus years their child has been on loan, and now a whole new relationship begins.
Even for the most sophisticated parent, this realization comes as a shock, and what makes the shock worse is that it needs to be concealed. It’s OK to cry at commencement, but every parent knows you shouldn’t make your new graduate feel guilty about achieving independence.
If a son or daughter is going on to graduate or professional school, the family ties may last a little longer. A college grad who qualifies as a dependent may make use of a parent’s health insurance until the age of 26. But every parent knows post-college dependency is fleeting.
This year I had parents come from Utah and India to be at commencement with daughters, who were going home for the summer. These parents were among the lucky ones. They got a reprieve on the separation that is around the corner, but they didn’t kid themselves into thinking things were going back to what they had been.
As someone who graduated from college before there was email and the internet, I remember graduation came as a shock for parents of my generation who had a son or daughter in a far-from-home college. As students, none of us were diligent letter writers or great long-distance phone callers. Our roommates as well as our boyfriends and girlfriends were largely a mystery to our parents.
Zoom and email have made a change in that regard. Today’s parents have a much deeper knowledge of their children’s personal lives than my pre-email family did, and these same parents have benefited from coming of age themselves at a time when the pill and social ethics made sexual intimacy the norm for many young people by their late teens or early twenties.
In many ways health worries have been reversed in recent years because of COVID. Most students I know have been more fearful about accidentally infecting vulnerable parents or grandparents with COVID than with getting infected themselves. They are the first generation in my experience that has felt a measure of guilt about being young and healthy.
As I meet with parents on our campus lawn, the last thing I try to do is pass on sage advice. That’s a recipe for being a bore. The fact is during the graduation reception I am feeling a version of the sadness parents feel despite having had their sons and daughters on loan for only four years. With many of my students, I’ll email in the future and write recommendations. Some will even visit. Since I teach at a college just outside New York, I am accessible. But things will, I know, never go back to how they were when college was in session.
Nicolaus Mills is professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America’s Coming of Age as a Superpower.