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College Graduation: Bittersweet

A Boston College tradition calls for the soon-to-be graduates to pull one more all-nighter on commencement eve and to gather on a rooftop overlooking Boston to watch the sun rise. For months, my college senior daughter and her five roommates banned their parents from saying the “G” word. Yet, try as they might, these beautiful young women could not stop the relentless march of time. On May 21, the sun dawned on Graduation Day. Suffice to say, senior week festivities, sleep deprivation and the finality of the event helped to stoke the emotions of the grads. They were not alone. As families gathered in the football stadium, tissues were passed as Pomp and Circumstance played. While “congratulations” was typical greeting, the more appropriate one seemed to be “commiserations.”

Why do so many feel bittersweet about what should be a joyful event? For parents and their adult children graduation marks the end of a precious time; some even regard college as “the best four years of your life.” It’s easy to see why 22-year-olds might feel that way. They lived in a safe bubble, surrounded 24-7 by friends, studied topics which, for the most part, they actually enjoyed, set their own crazy schedules where nightlife began at 11 p.m., all funded in varying degrees by the largesse of parents. Graduation brings that all to a halt. Now they are expected to earn their own keep; their friends have dispersed across the country and the continents; if they’re lucky enough to find a job it often includes mindless tasks, and mom and dad have turned into a nagging chorus.

For many parents, college represents the fulfillment of the dreams we have for our children. So much time and planning goes into the effort of getting a child admitted to college that when they actually enroll the four years pass in the blink of an eye. Often we vicariously share that college experience through iChats and texts, and joining them for special weekends, taking their friends out to dinner, cheering on a team and watching them perform on stage. Even the back-to-school spending ritual at Staples and Bed Bath and Beyond became a strangely comforting routine. Now that all comes to an end.

The passage of time reminds us that not only did our children travel at hyper speed through the last four years, so did we. No one is getting younger. For those of us who saw our youngest graduate, we no longer can say “I have one in college” which gives us a certain youthful patina. And, it hurts to see our children hurting.

In early May, one of my graduate students, coincidently Boston College alum, passed along a column he had written for the school newspaper at his own graduation in 2009, describing college as the “the best four years of his life.” Since then, this young man has had his share of post-college adventures. I asked him if he still thought college was the “best” four years of his life. While he believes that college was a magical moment in time, he’s now convinced that there will be many more “best years” to experience and enjoy. Of course, parents know from their own experiences that college graduation is not an end but rather a new beginning with indeed many more “best years.” But it’s hard for the class of 2012 to see that yet.

So as they continue to unpack four years of accumulated stuff, look for jobs, establish routines, and generally figure out what they are doing for the next six months, we parents need to offer love, support and advice (doled out in rations) and cut them a little slack as they adjust to the next stage of their lives. Try to avoid the “G” word and instead use “commencement,” signaling the start of a new chapter of their lives. Nothing will ever replicate those special four years but, with a little luck, life will bring more exciting adventures.

We’re reminded of that perennial graduation speech favorite: Dr. Seuss’ “Oh the Places You’ll Go.” You may recall it from nursery school graduation or maybe the college commencement speaker referred to it. The protagonist’s adventures take him through peaks with purple elephants and valleys with deep blue wells, and occasionally he’s “left in a Lurch” or in a “Slump (unslumping yourself is not easily done).” Yet the constant theme is “Oh the places you’ll go! There is fun to be done!” Pass along the last verse to a member of the class of 2012 to help spring them from that post-college slump:

You’ll get mixed up, of course,
as you already know.
You’ll get mixed up
with many strange birds as you go.
So be sure when you step.
Step with care and great tact
and remember that Life’s
a Great Balancing Act.
Just never forget to be dexterous and deft.
And never mix up your right foot with your left.

And will you succeed?
Yes! You will, indeed!
(98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.)

KID, YOU’LL MOVE MOUNTAINS!
So…
be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray
or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O’Shea,
you’re off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So…get on your way!

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