Why I chose to graduate…again

Many of my graduate colleagues have made and will make the decision to skip on the graduation ceremony for their Master’s degree (or second Masters, or Specialist Degree, or even PhD). And truthfully, the second or third time you get a degree, you do feel a little annoyed at all the setup that goes into getting ready for graduation.

The school will likely require you to:

  1. Go to one or two different places on campus (or “grounds,” if you are at UVa where word choice matters in such things) to pick up your allotted tickets for the ceremony(ies).
  2. Go possibly even to a third place on campus to get your complimentary cap and gown (but of course pay for anything else, like your master’s hood…now remind me who on earth would bother wearing a master’s gown with those dumb sleeves without the hood…aren’t the colors kind of the point? Well, you owe them more than the $50K you’ve already paid. They’ll get that last $36 from you). (And yes, both #1 and #2 will have to happen even if you are no longer taking courses and living in another city. It would be a terrible burden on the school to just mail you that stuff. Sigh.)
  3. If you’re like me, this traveling will require taking time off work – that annoying place you need to be if you’re to pay the bills. Then you will get home with that wrinkly mess of a gown and have to iron it if you’re not to look like you just rolled out of bed when you graduate. Ironing…as if anyone has time to do that anymore! (or knows how…)
  4. You’ll have to then make plans with any family or friends to find parking on a hot May day somewhere on campus and build in enough time for everyone to make it to the ceremony place(s). You’ll stand around in line in the hot sun and wait for hordes of undergrads to get their acts together while your measly handful of graduate students sweat through their extra layers of robes, stoles, hats, and hoods. You’ll be making plans to find food among the throngs of family members and graduates. You’ll be trying to remember what that email said about where to stand, which hand to get the diploma with, and when to smile because they’re taking your photo.
  5. You’ll listen to speeches that are generally aimed at the “Class of 2015” but you’ve forgotten what year it is with the full-time job, thesis, and adult responsibilities. “Class of 2015” is something 22 year olds are excited about. Your main work was done when your thesis defense passed. The speeches are mostly just pomp. You’ll feel a little old among the hundreds or thousands of undergraduates.

So why? Why would I do this again? This all just sounds like tons of preplanning and dressing up on a hot day to waste time for a degree that will arrive via postal mail in a few weeks regardless of whether I show up in my robe.

Here are some of the reasons to go ahead and walk despite the trouble:

  • You will ritualize that which is finished. Rituals are a deeply meaningful part of human identity. We bury our dead. We put rings on our left hands and recite vows. We practice religious rituals like baptism and dedication. We humans find closure and hope in our ritualizing important moments in our human experience. Graduation ritualizes a major accomplishment. It provides us a meaningful way to complete our academic endeavors.
  • You get to shake hands with those who nurtured your academic journey. After your defense, you crashed from exhaustion but then had to keep working and being an adult. But on this day, for that little ceremony (especially if you have a smaller departmental ceremony like I did), you have a little bit of time to appreciate the joy of completion with those who taught you how to survive this academic world.
  • You allow your family into your academic bubble. They get to meet those professors who taught/tortured you. They get to hear straight from your professors that you were a good student and a survivor. They get to see a little of the department that has helped shape your academic mind for the last two+ years. So often family does not get a chance to “get it” from the source. For these few moments, they do. They experience a little piece of your life they otherwise might not ever see.
  • You rarely regret it. Save a few schools that don’t do the pomp and circumstance right, you will find only joy when you take the time to walk in a graduation ceremony. You’ll have photos of you in your garb with your family (preferably before any outdoor ceremony made you sweat like a pig). You won’t forget the many times someone congratulated you, recognized you, and honored the fact that you have achieved a great deal. We all need to hear we’re doing well. We all need to feel that recognition. And while anecdotally I have heard many tales of feeling bummed for not walking in graduation ceremonies, I have not had many tell me they were sorry they went.
  • You will stop long enough to let your achievement sink in. For so long, you have spent countless hours prepping coursework, reading, writing, producing. You have been in class with people who make you feel invigorated and smart, as well as less intelligent with every word you utter. You have been on a roller coaster of emotions and effort. Finishing your last class is so surreal that you just walk away kind of numb. The affirmation of graduation lets you stop long enough to really wrap your head around that you have completed something big – not just the daily drumbeat of coursework, but what now has become a degree that will forever change your life, whether it be by simply having new knowledge of the world or by providing you a new credential for your professional life.

While I wish the process were a little easier to get prepared and that there weren’t 20,000 things to remember for the day of graduation, I would not trade a moment of that hot, sweaty day of two ceremonies and constant “congratulations” from everyone I met.

I would not trade the celebration of finalizing the immense workload from the last two years – my academic triumphs and my emotional survival. For once in this two year saga, I got something more than a good grade or a passing “interesting thoughts, Libby.” I finished a graduate degree from a prestigious institution with a side of handshakes and smiles.

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