As we approach Commencement, I wanted to share some of my thinking on this moment in time filled with new beginnings and plentiful goodbyes.
A Time for Separations
Interestingly, although we often do not focus on this, separation is omnipresent on a college campus. At the start of each academic year, new parents are separating from their children and, for parents of first generation students, this departure can be wrenching. Their child may only be moving from New Hampshire to Vermont but the move might as well be Venice, Italy, because it feels so very far away. With college acceptance letters now circulating among high school seniors and the time for deposits approaching, there is already a sense in many families that separation is looming.
Then, graduation presents separations too – from friends, from faculty and staff, from an institution that has become, for many, a home away from home. It is a separation from SVC’s small, protective world into a largely unknown and vastly riskier world.
And, in between, there are countless separations over the course of students’ lives at the college: relationships that did not work, comings and goings multiple times each year from home to school over holidays and breaks, navigating departures of faculty or staff who leave the institution, become ill or pass away.
To be sure, our goal is to enable our students to leave us. That may seem like an odd way to explain college but in a sense, we aim to develop independent thinkers who after several years, depart with a degree (and career opportunity) in hand. Student departures mean our students have succeeded and are ready for the next phase of their lives.
That does not mean that separation is easy – for anyone.
Struggles with Separation
Early in my time as president of SVC, I remember the parent of an incoming student taking me aside at New Student Orientation and saying, “This is my only child. Please take care of her.” It sounded very familiar to me – like when our son went off to college and then graduate school a plane ride away from home. I said to the parent, “I understand: been there, done that. I will watch out for your daughter.”
Importantly, my own separation experiences with our son have made it easier for me to help others separate and instead of saying, “Oh, this too shall pass….” Or “Time for letting go…” (to quote a book of a similar name) I can respond in ways that are genuine – more genuine than people may know.
I am not saying that college presidents without children are unable to assuage parental fears or understand separation. But I have always wondered how a male obstetrician can truly explain the physical side of childbirth; it is one of those experiences that is awfully hard to capture if one has not been there oneself. And so it is with separation.
Separations’ Crown Jewel: Commencement
Commencement is a culminating separation. To be sure, I am immensely proud and look forward to the many wonderful things our students will accomplish when they leave us. But, at some level, our graduates’ departure always makes me a bit wistful. I remember one very good student who kept flunking as he got closer and closer to graduation — it seemed he did not want to leave. I actually understood what motivated him; separation is hard – and for some of us, really hard.
I was struck by a question someone recently asked me, reflecting on our commencement exercises: Why do I hug so many of the students as they cross the stage?
I suppose one reason is that I have come to know a goodly number of our students through their years at SVC, I have witnessed their ups and downs, and this is my way of showing them how very proud I am of them.
Another is because hugging is a way of saying goodbye – letting students know that, like parents, the college has affection for them and will still be there for them as they move forward. It is for this reason too that, as a parting gift, we give each SVC graduate a book, relevant to Commencement (this year it’s Honorary Degree recipient Marcus Samuelsson’s New American Table) signed by every member of the SVC community – a keepsake so they can remember us when they move on to the next stage in and phase of their lives.
I guess, on a more personal note, I also hug students because, in some small way, our students helped take away the sting of our son living far far from home.
I will miss our graduates. I suspect many of them will miss us. But, the opportunity to share their launch – year in and year out with different groups of students and their families and friends – helps assuage the inevitable sadness that accompanies their success. I get — like the movie Ground Hog Day — a chance to do it all over again.
One could say that separation, done right, is worth repeating.