Why Graduation Matters


It was a very strange and difficult week here in Boston last week. The bombings at the Boston Marathon, the ensuing anxiety of the search for the culprits, and the final, surreal climax that brought an entire metropolitan area to a standstill were like nothing we’ve ever experienced—and left us all feeling like something fundamental had changed in our lives.

Amidst all of this was the scheduled graduation last Saturday of more than 1,100 students from Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies (CPS), of which I’m the proud dean.

Ours is a wonderfully diverse population of students—our graduates this year came from 37 states across the U.S. and an amazing 34 countries around the world—which means that people were traveling to Boston from around the country and the globe to share in a special and pivotal moment in the life of someone they love.

We struggled throughout last week about what to do if the search for suspects continued, but ultimately had the decision made for us when Boston was told to “shelter-in-place” on Friday. Our Doctoral Hooding Ceremony had to be canceled outright and our graduation had to be delayed by one day—we were certainly not going to cancel that special event unless the city told us we had to. 

And here’s the thing: it went off beautifully on Sunday, not a glitch anywhere. As with so many other things in Boston last week, everyone chipped in and made it happen. CPS faculty and staff changed their personal schedules to be there on Sunday morning instead of Saturday. Graduates and their families changed airline tickets and hotel reservations. Even the weather did its part: Saturday morning was rainy, cold and gray, but Sunday was sunny and glorious.

As I stood on the stage looking out at the hundreds of graduates and their thousands of supporters shouting words of congratulations when their graduate’s name was called, I was reminded why graduation matters.

 For academics, it’s a seasonal passage of time, something we mark our tenure with. In that regard, it is regular and routine. I don’t mean to imply, however, that it is not significant or special. Quite the contrary. Like many cyclical celebrations, it is a festive and inspiring time.

And for our students, it is a point of inflection, a line separating the past and the future. It is when family and friends acknowledge the manifested changes in the students’ lives. Aspirations and anxiety are at their peak! It is when the experience and hard work are validated, celebrated and made real. “When did you graduate?” is as valid of a question as “When did you get your degree?” It is a rare experience when we celebrate an accomplishment that can never be taken away. Once you are conferred a degree at graduation, it is with you for life.

Never was that message—and the power of that moment—more real to me than last Sunday, mere days after two people tried to take  something precious from our city, indeed from us all. They failed because they didn’t understand that tragedy, like graduation, brings us together, strengthens our bonds and makes us focus on the possibilities of tomorrow rather than the sorrows of yesterday.