On Graduation

If you’ve never been to a CCNY graduation, you should come.

All graduations are joyous events; all graduations affect transitions between years of preparation and a world rife with new possibilities.  And, I’ll admit that it’s been years since I’ve attended a graduation that did not take place on a CUNY campus—but I still think our graduations are different.

I think they’re different because they’re filled with young people rewriting their entire family history.  When you wander around after a Colin Powell School graduation ceremony, you’re surrounded by parents who’ve sent sons and daughters into a world they didn’t understand and couldn’t explain to their children.  For many it may feel like a huge gamble: will their children grow unfamiliar to them, alienated from home and culture? Will the embrace of an education build walls, or create ladders? Will a child’s opportunity be a family’s loss? Despite the risks and doubts, or perhaps because of them, students and families arrive at graduation day as to a new continent they never thought they’d reach.  The air is spiced with their joy.

I think they’re different, too, because CCNY is so different.  Our students carry within themselves the memories of nagging doubt of being somehow the odd person out on a college campus.  Worries about belonging hover close at hand: the gnawing fear that somehow this new life, tantalizingly close, was not actually meant for them, that some mistake had been made, somewhere along the line, and at any moment, they might be discovered to be an imposter.  In our campus, they find a place where that doubt fades because everybody belongs, where every experience or perspective is given the respect of a full consideration, where student grow into the life of the mind, rather than inheriting it as a birthright. They create community and a sense of place from people who yearn for our specific community, in our particular place.

And by graduation day, most of our students are keenly aware that they are going into a world that will not be the same as the one they inhabited at CCNY.  The world of our campus, in all its breadth and multifaceted-ness, is still a dawning promise, a world of the future. But graduates also know that they are marked by their time together, and so they leave with a keen awareness of themselves—I think—as emissaries of that better place. At the Colin Powell School (but elsewhere at CCNY) we are explicit about these matters, about the usefulness of building a model for how to live that will be a training ground and a touchstone for the rest of life.

I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about how public higher education is supported in these times: how it is valued, regarded, funded, and evaluated. Graduation, every year, makes me think our metrics, most of the time, are all wrong. Our students fill the world each year with something unique: with testimony to the continuing currency of democracy’s promise to all of its citizens, a promise not just about the prospects of opportunity and mobility, but about the currency of that success: that it will be authentic to a citizen’s lived experience and perspective. The American dream doesn’t require families to lose their children to another world.  The American dream makes room for us all, just as we are.

It’s frustrating that those defunding public higher education seem nowhere to grasp the enormity of what might be lost when you choke off places like CCNY. We write about it all the time, often in terms of changing class sizes, or denuded infrastructure, or the shifting balance between full-time and adjunct instruction. But it must also be accounted for in terms of a particular disregard for the specific civic contribution one makes in creating and nurturing a place devoted to everyone’s future. For if the loss of funds impacts our campus and its works, the realization of that disregard cuts more deeply.  Our student carry it around with them, seeing it in every broken thing deemed good enough for them. They understand it in the difference between the world they would make together, and the world they will enter when they leave campus, and with that understanding and mixed into their joy, there is also a kind of defiance, and a commitment to succeed.  And that, too, makes our graduations unique.

If you’ve never been to a CCNY graduation, you should most definitely come.



Author: Colin Powell School

"Social Thought with a Public Purpose" The Colin Powell School houses the activities in the Social Sciences at the City College of New York, connecting education and research to critical public concerns. Rooted in the Harlem community, the school is global in its diversity, outlook, and reach.

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