Webster’s on-line dictionary defines “graduation,” the noun, as “1. The successful completion of a program of study; 2. An academic exercise in which diplomas are conferred; 3. The act of arranging in grades.” I guess the term might be useful for referring to a day or a ceremony, and it’s always nice to hear short speeches from public officials, comics, and newscasters decked out in quasi-medieval gowns. But I also think we make way, way too much out of college graduations as a rite of passage. Here’s why.
As today’s graduating seniors know all too well, the purpose of a liberal arts education – our main product at W&M – is not to impart professional skills or provide some kind of an imprimatur of academic prowess. “Here’s your diploma, now go forth and make money and influence people.” Instead, the goal is to give students a rigorous exposure to diverse fields of study, to push them to engage in the broadest possible array of intellectual pursuits. It may sound a tad highfalutin, I know, but we basically want to help our students harness and develop their abilities to make themselves better people and better citizens. Obviously, that process doesn’t begin when they are freshmen, and it certainly doesn’t end with some ceremony in May of senior year.
Consider for instance the graduating seniors of 2009 who will enter the workforce in the next few months. Hopefully, the rich and broad educational experience that they received at W&M has provided them with the work habits, background knowledge, and communications skills necessary to succeed. Personally, I’m convinced that it has.
Still, a lot of what our graduates will be doing over the next few years should inform, enrich, and extend what they studied as undergraduates. For example, the former students in my courses about Congress and public policy who take jobs on Capitol Hill, elsewhere in the government, or perhaps working for an advocacy coalition or “think tank,” will see in action a lot the concepts that we discussed in class. Actually, for graduating seniors, I think that the process of searching for a job in politics or government, along the way talking to perhaps dozens of people about their own professional activities and places of employment, can be a superb way to learn about the day-to-day operations of government.
Also, my guess is that a lot of today’s graduating seniors will be returning to Williamsburg in the next few years, not just for reunions, homecoming, and other social events, but also to speak to classes and student groups about their post-graduate professional activities. During the academic year, there is a lot of traffic in and out of Williamsburg, with hundreds of outside speakers making presentations and leading discussions that link their professional experiences to aspects of our curriculum. If the past is any guide, in the coming years many of these guest speakers will be recent W&M graduates.
More generally, graduates of the College can provide our current students with invaluable assistance in planning their careers, finding internships, and perhaps even securing full-time employment down the line. Most graduates of W&M, I believe, have strong emotional and intellectual ties to the place that continues long after they leave Williamsburg. Our graduates are willing, even eager to help current students negotiate the complex professional opportunities and challenges that they themselves confronted during their own undergraduate years. I hope and expect that many members of the class of 2009 will provide this kind of advice and assistance to the cohorts of W&M students that follow them here. Sure, we’ll give you a few months to get settled – but you can expect to hear from faculty, staff and, students at the College sometime soon with requests for help.
The bottom line? What students learn at W&M should help them in graduate school, in the professional workforce, and elsewhere in their lives. No matter what you majored in at the College, over the next few years your understanding of that subject will deepen because of your post graduate activities. Graduates of the College have a lot to offer current W&M students, both professionally and intellectually. And all this rhetoric about “rites of passage?” It’s mostly bunk. W&M has its hooks in you and those hooks are there to stay.