Next week four thousand ISU students wearing long gowns and funny hats will walk across a stage and receive an empty red diploma cover in a ritual marking the end of a successful college career. The mood at the various commencement ceremonies on campus is festive. At the one I participate in each year as a member of the faculty contingent, the positive energy is palpable. It’s impossible to be glum amidst all the happy graduates and the thousands of proud family members who fill Redbird Arena to capacity.
But lately I have witnessed a disturbing trend that is spoiling the fun. An alarming number of our graduating Redbirds seem to be so eager to leave the nest that they don’t stick around for the end of their own commencement ceremony! After marching in, sitting through the speeches, and then walking across the stage, many newly-minted graduates simply leave the building rather than waiting for their classmates to take their turn.
It has become such a problem that by the time the final procession begins, almost half the graduating class is already gone! Those students with the misfortune of being seated at the back are left looking out at a sea of now-empty chairs in front of them, demoralized at being left behind by their classmates on this momentous occasion. As one of many professors who volunteers their time to be a part of the celebration, I can say that I have never been more embarrassed to be part of the ISU community than when watching this shameful display of disrespect.
I understand the impulse to want to leave early. Listening to canned speeches and 1,000 names being read aloud may not be the most thrilling way to spend a Friday night but how many times in life do you graduate from college? How important is it that you beat traffic on a night when so many have come together to honor you? What does this say about you and about us a community?
I think one way to interpret the early leaving phenomenon is that it shows how education is being reduced in the eyes of many to a mere commercial transaction. In this view college is a product that we purchase and then use for our individual benefit. Just like a trip to Walmart, we get what we came for, pay for it, and then leave.
Or perhaps it’s a sign that the values of individualism and self-interest have become so firmly accepted that there is no shame in acting selfishly. The early leavers are, quite literally, sending the message “Now that I got mine, to hell with you.” We see this attitude displayed a lot these days in our social policies and by the politicians and citizens who support them: “I have health insurance, why should I pay for yours?”; “My kids go to good schools, it’s not my problem if yours don’t”; “I have a lot, go get your own”.
Completing college requires individual perseverance and hard work. But education is by its nature a collective effort. No one ever earns a degree without help from scores of others. Your family who provided critical financial and emotional support. Friends and roommates who motivated you to work harder or who distracted you when you needed to relieve stress. Academic advisors who helped you navigate the university bureaucracy. Professors who inspired and mentored you. In a very real sense, commencement is the community celebrating a success that we all played a part in.
So graduates, please remain seated. After four, five or six long years, what’s a few more minutes? While you are waiting, use the time to take it all in – trust me, there will be few occasions like this in your life. Use the time to reflect on your accomplishment and to appreciate all the people who helped you get here. Don’t diminish your achievement or denigrate your classmates or disrespect those who have come to honor you, just to beat the traffic.
This article appeared as a guest column I wrote for our university newspaper about a troubling trend on campus recently, graduates leaving their own commencement ceremony before it’s over. I’d love to hear from others about what they think and whether this is happening on other campuses too…