John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

It’s That Time of Year

May 5, 2014huhnInsights0

John N. Gardner

It’s that time of year: end of term, before summer hiatus and commencement. And I am thinking about the kinds of things I used to say to my students as a parting message. And I hope you are thinking about what you could and should say to your students. It has been my experience that more of this messaging sinks in than we are aware of at the time we deliver it.

I am delivering a commencement address next week. It is one of the most difficult I have ever tried to plan for because I know that if I am not finished in exactly ten minutes a giant ejector hook is going to come out and remove me from the platform. My hosts and I know each other very well and they really mean it when they say ten minutes is all you’ve got. This is a way this campus respects its students and protects them (The University of South Carolina-Sumter). It wants them to leave the institution with a positive taste in their mouths, which a long-winded speaker could reduce the possibility of.

I have recommended to my readers before to try out as a mental exercise at least raising the question of what would you have to say if you could deliver the commencement address to your students this year? You can. There are many different contexts for end-of-term commencement. What are the most important thoughts you would like your students to carry with them as they finish the term and go off for four months or so?

Ideally, we wouldn’t be thinking about students going off for the summer. This is because as some southern Protestants have long said, the summer is a time for “backsliding”, in our context a kind of falling off the academic wagon and resuming bad habits acquired pre-college. And this is in the face of evidence from the US Department of Education, now more than ten years old, from the research of former USDOE researcher Clifford Adelman, which documents the higher degree attainment rates for students who have had ANY credits earned in summer school than for students who haven’t. There is something powerful to be said for keeping the students in the groove, in the fold, not letting them get out of our good habits!

The fact that students leave us for the summer is explained by many factors, including tradition—an agrarian tradition of families needing their grown children home again to help plant or bring in the harvest. Another factor is the students’ need for employment to help pay for college. And many students just want the break, even though if they kept on going they could get into the workforce sooner, and begin a year or so sooner to pay off their student loan debt and have acquired less of it in the first place than if they had gone straight through.

So what would you talk about? Well for starters you could give them advice on how to stay connected to their institution and their own higher education process during the summer? You could encourage them to consider coming to summer school.  Getting an internship. Getting a job on campus. Participating in an educational travel experience.

And what am I going to say to these students?

I am going to reflect on how when I came to this community where I am delivering the address 47 years ago, I had a superior officer in the US Air Force “order” me to perform community service. I would urge the graduates not to let anyone dear to them have to wait until they were nearly 23 years old before having somebody say to them for the first time that they had an obligation to perform service.

I would use the occasion to discuss how fate (the Vietnam War) had placed me in a situation I didn’t want to be in (on active duty in the military) but that I resolved to be what we call now a “survivor personality” and make the most of it. So what could our students “make the most of” this summer and later on too.

I would use the occasion to reflect on how this community has changed from de jure segregation to a more integrated society with more opportunity for all. I would use this as an illustration of how in this era when one political party never misses an opportunity to trash governmental action, that some of our most important changes and new opportunities as a country have been created by governmental action (in this case the Civil Rights Act).

This is to encourage you then to deliver your own thoughtful and unique commencement address to your students.

And this year, I am having another unique experience, a different type of commencement ritual, a wedding. My wife and I are presiding at a secular wedding ceremony where we will legally marry a couple including the delivery of a “commencement” homily. Rituals matter. They are what bind us together and make us into community.

Your commencement address needs to invite your students to return to your community, and if possible, not fully leave it this summer.

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