In a few weeks, many of our community's young people will be graduating from high school, while many others have just graduated from college. Both events are significant rites of passage, for both the student and the family.
Last week, my son Eric received his bachelor's degree in economics from Emory University in Atlanta. I thought I would take the time to reflect on, and compare, graduation from high school with college commencement.
There were certainly similarities in my feelings on those two glorious days, separated by four years of growth and development. In both cases, I was proud of his academic accomplishments and leadership experiences. In both cases, I was thrilled about, and grateful for, the next step he had procured for himself, in the former case his college acceptance, and in the latter case an entry level job. And yes, my eyes were welling up with tears on both occasions.
I was taken aback, however, by the differences.
When my son graduated from high school, I felt the emotional pangs of that joyful and bittersweet rite of passage deeply. I empathize with parents who are going through it this year, whether it be for the first time or the last time.
On one level, a young person's move to college is huge, for the adolescent as well as for the family he or she leaves behind. But on another level, it is only one more step in becoming comfortable and self-reliant living away from home. It has parallels to attending sleep-away camp or boarding school, while returning home on holidays and seasonal breaks. When a teenager starts college, his or her "occupation" is still the same as before: student. I don't mean to downplay the significance of this pivotal developmental step. I am simply taking some of the sentimentality out of it for a moment, in order to reflect on it vis à vis graduation from college.
American adolescence, at least for the college-bound middle class, is a series of structured milestones that pop up quickly on a relatively short time horizon. Parents and their teens can typically expect events such as bar and bat mitzvah celebrations, confirmations, sweet sixteen parties, learner's permit and driver's license, sports championships or performing arts events, junior and senior prom, turning 18, applying to college, and finally, high school graduation. As parents and teens live out the intense drama of this six year period, there's always yet another upcoming milestone to anticipate and enjoy. Perhaps it's a good thing, because the teen years at home are so filled with "guts" that it's a relief to have frequent breaks for "glory."
Now let us consider college graduation. Yes, some college graduates go directly on to postgraduate studies, continuing with the same "occupation" of scholar or professional-in-training. And many young adults today "boomerang" back to their parents' home for some period of time during their twenties, for a variety of reasons, such as the difficulty of finding a job in a recession or the need to save money to pay off college loans, accumulate capital for grad school or prepare to buy a condo. However, as the mother of a college grad for 10 days now, I believe that college commencement is a rite of passage with far more gravitas than high school graduation, for the young person holding the diploma as well as the parents.
The significance of college commencement is that is a leap into a much larger, uncharted world, far less structured than the high school or college years, and less predictable than in previous decades. "Generation Y" young adults are typically not simply stepping from one traditional milestone to another, in a conventional 1950s chronological order and lickety-split time sequence. Some steps will not be taken in the twenties, if at all. I'm talking about the successive rungs on the educational and career ladder, as well as eventual steps in the realm of personal relationships, marriage, home and family. It is the "new normal" for all of these career and life-stage steps to be spread out as never before, sprawling across the twenties and even the thirties. A parent cannot count on a predictable flow of events by which to measure the progress of one's adult child. Instead, a parent must truly learn to "go with the flow."
Graduation from high school is like a ship's departure from the dock, passing the first buoy in the low wake area of the harbor. But the ship is still within sight, going slow, with a few more predictable buoys in close proximity: freshman Thanksgiving, fraternity rush, sophomore slump, study abroad, summer internship, moving off-campus, turning 21, and so forth. College commencement is figuratively a departure from the harbor itself, entering the open ocean, with its vast expanses, unforeseeable storms, and countless unforgiving dangers. Milestones are nowhere in view. This is the long haul, the real thing, the adult journey.
At college commencement, a proud parent waves goodbye to a brave young adult, captain of one's own ship now, no longer in the harbor but headed out for the open sea.