What Graduation Means to a Professor
Graduating with a college degree means a myriad of things to different people, at different times in their lives—professors included. Faculty members have the unique opportunity to foster relationships with students and see their hard work come to fruition at commencement. Dr. Marvee Marr, DBA, a professor in the Forbes School of Business & Technology™, reflects on the Spring 2017 commencement ceremony at Ashford University.
As tears ran down my face, I searched myself for a tissue. My graduation gown did not have pockets, nor did I have a purse with me. Out of nowhere, a hand came into view, passing me a small tissue to dry my eyes.
“Thanks for the share,” I whispered.
“You are welcome,” the kind tissue-contributor whispered back. “Graduation speakers always choke me up.”
In 2013, I moved back to the US after living and working as a professor in Eastern Europe for almost six years. That year alone, I attended five university graduations as a professor. At each and every ceremony, I found myself unexpectedly tearing up. In fact, more than tearing up. Before I knew it, tears would be streaming down my face and dripping from my chin. I found my shoulders shaking as I fought back tears. Once or twice, I even got the crying hiccups. Graduations tend to trigger the sentimentality in people, but in 2013, it was evident that these graduations started to mean something different to me.
Curiously, I found myself listening much more carefully to the words of the National Anthem at each of the five ceremonies that year, and every graduation since then. One young woman belting out the rousing verses of the age-old tune brought chills to my body as she effortlessly hit every high note, extending the words “free” and “brave.” But it wasn’t just her award-winning, should-be-on-‘The Voice’ talent that shook me to the core -- it was the words of our anthem. This is the land of the free. Of the brave. I find myself blubbering at the National Anthem at every graduation as my heart fills with pride for the initiative and determination of each of those students. There are few moments that I love more than when the words of our anthem echo through a room of people who have bravely chosen to face their fears, progress in their education, and free their minds.
Another central part of what makes graduation such a special time for me and each class of graduates is the highly-anticipated commencement speech. While I cannot assert that every commencement speaker I have heard over the last 30 odd years has been memorable or awe-inspiring, the great majority have brought tears to my eyes and have touched my heart. At Ashford’s Spring 2017 commencement, Paralympic track and field athlete Lex Gillette shared his struggles and triumphs to a full house of over 1,200 Ashford University graduates. I do not believe he left one dry eye in the house as he regaled us with the story of a boy who went blind at the tender age of 8 years old, and went on to become a Paralympic medalist and earn multiple advanced degrees. Lex made us laugh, made us cheer, and made us cry.
As a professor for over 20 years, graduation ceremonies have always been a special time for me to see the fruit of my labor come to realization. As I approach the twilight years of my career, watching students receive a degree -- whether undergrad or graduate level, has a profound impact on the way I view my role in this vast universe. The pride on the faces of each graduate, the ones who look up to the audience to see their parents, spouse, children, or friends, and hear their cheers, especially the ones who do a happy-dance across the stage all bring joy to my heart. As does the graduate who took 20 years off and completed a BA at the age of 45, and the graduate who finished a Master’s degree while raising three children and working two jobs. And to the graduate who never ever thought he or she would see this day come, who thought that small light at the end of that tunnel would never burn quite bright enough -- it is on fire on graduation day. These are the students, the heroes, who continuously bring tears to my eyes at commencement.
Graduation has come to mean many things to me. But above all, seeing these students rise to their highest potential reassures me that, through the late nights of grading, the long days of work, the confusion, the complaints, and even the cursing -- I know I have made the right choice to be in this profession.