A Tale of Two Commencements

Commencements make spring memorable. During the past three weeks I have attended two commencements. I am humbled to have received an honorary degree at both. The commencements were similar to most in the order of the exercises and the joys of the moment. What was most different about them was the students.

One commencement I attended was for students from the eight different locations of Berkeley College throughout New York and New Jersey. Berkeley College is fully accredited by the Middle States Association and is family-owned. The other commencement was at Mitchell College, a small private institution in Connecticut on the Thames River.

I’m certain that like me, many of you who had the opportunity to sit up close as students received their diplomas were entertained by the choice of footwear among the graduates. At Berkeley College, there were no flip flops or sandals. The women, for the most part, had on high fashion platform, stiletto, or wedge heels, of which the glossy beige pump made famous by Princess Kate Middleton was a favorite. The men had on black dress shoes. Wearing one’s best shoes was important because this was a very special occasion for these students, their families, and their friends.

I think that the demographics of the graduates at these two commencements tell us something, but I’m not clear about the message. In sharing what I saw, I hope you will help me think about what the demographics might mean.

I spoke with a number of students at Mitchell College in order to prepare to give the commencement address. What I learned from these conversations is that the students felt that there was nowhere else they could have received the kind of academic and personal support they needed to complete the requirements for their degree. They said that regardless of their unique needs, the phenomenal faculty and staff always found a way to meet their needs.

I learned that the college has a renowned Learning Resource Center for students with documented learning disabilities, and/or ADHD. It also has a special program called the Thames Academy where students who have completed high school and are not quite ready for college because of a lack of general knowledge or particular learning difficulties or disabilities may experience a residential college where they can receive additional support through workshops and personalized learning plans. Approximately one-third of the students at Mitchell College need additional support.

When the graduates who had to work extra hard to overcome challenges to learning walked across the stage to get their diplomas, the joy was palpable. In one instance, a student who had a mobility disability not only walked across the stage with considerable difficulty to receive her own diploma, but came back across the stage to hold the hand and guide a fellow graduate who had a visual disability.

These graduates were proud of their accomplishments and the faculty, staff, administrators, families and friends were proud of them and, hopefully, felt some well-earned pride in what they had done to support this diverse group of students.

At Berkeley College, the racial diversity was not as apparent, and there were not any visible disabilities among the graduates who walked to receive their diplomas. As I sat on the stage and looked out at approximately 1,200 graduates, what struck me about the racial mix of students was that there seemed to be very few white students. They were definitely in the minority. Most of the faces of the students were brown and black and the last names most often called were traditionally Hispanic or Latino names. The commencement ceremony was held in the Meadowlands Sports Complex in the Izod Center, where even the high bleachers were filled with families and friends, most of which were black and brown.

I don’t know if my observations are the same as the observations you would make, and I’m sure that the conclusions I draw will be different than yours, but I think the demographics of these two commencements mean something. They may be telling us that those most in need of a good public education are choosing to go to private colleges where the costs will naturally exceed the costs of tax-supported public education. I might be wrong, but it seems that there is something fundamentally unfair about this situation. On the one hand, I wish the black and brown students whose families may not be able to afford a private institution would choose a more affordable public institution. On the other hand, I’m happy that there is a private institution that will meet their needs. I do not think that these students and families would choose a more expensive private institution if their local public institutions met their needs.

On the one hand, I am so glad that Mitchell College fills a unique and important niche for students who otherwise might not have the opportunity to achieve up to their potential. On the other hand, I regret that there are so many other students who could benefit from such an environment as that at Mitchell College but they and their families cannot afford to attend. It would seem that a priority of public colleges and universities would be to provide education to all students in their community. The two commencements uplift and encourage me, and they also make me want to do something to make public education more responsive and amenable to the needs of those students who need it most.

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