Sunday, December 20, 2009
Commencement--A Magnificent Experience
Graduation ceremonies at any university are so much fun. But December graduation ceremony at the University of Houston-Downtown was especially impressive. Nearly 1,250 students, the largest single graduating class in the university's history, shook hands and crossed the stage to receive their diplomas.
So many parents and loved ones show up each semester that the university has to hold its graduation ceremonies at Minute Maid Park--where the Houston Astros play their games. The place was packed with between 15,000-20,000 parents, spouses, family, and friends in attendance. And, the flash from cameras filled the air.
The crowds began early Sunday morning with parents taking pictures, and students in cap and gown running from the parking the lot to line up. Parents hugged their students and students hugged their children or loved ones--parents, boyfriends, girlfriends, wives, husbands, brother and sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, neighbors and co-workers--all celebrating.
Any graduation is colorful and exciting: the multi-colored regalia, the march of the faculty and students to "Pomp and Circumstance," the shouts and joy of the students, and the happiness of the parents and loved ones fill the air. For students, it marks the end of courses, finals, and late-night study sessions. For parents and students alike, it means the end of those checks for tuition, fees, and books (at least, until the loans are due).
Because UHD's graduation ceremony takes place at Minute Maid Park, the parents can watch the students cross the stage on the large screens throughout the park. Some come with banners, noise-makers, and cheering sections. They scream when the name of the student is called or when the student crosses the stage.
Because these are first generation students and mainly working students, it is a big deal when they graduate. It is not uncommon to see extended families of 25 or more sit together--they come early, mark off seats, and fill the stands.
At this graduation ceremony the youngest student to receive their bachelor's diploma was 20 years old and the oldest was 63! The average age of the graduates was just over 30. There were students from nearly 30 countries--from Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Europe. But, most were born and raised in the Houston area or in nearby cities in Texas. And, most were the first in their family to earn a college degree.
Like the name itself, "Commencement," the ceremony marks a new beginning--as students move to a new phase of life, entering the job market and seeking new careers. The stories of the students are quite impressive with many who overcame tremendous sacrifices and personal or family difficulties to make it through college.
UHD graduate Norvia Read gave the student address. She has earned a bachelor's degree in interdisciplinary studies, with an emphasis in teaching. She spoke about the impact UHD has made in her community and the potential that every graduate holds. Despite a learning disability, Ms. Read persisted in education, ultimately succeeding.
Novia Read was among the first to enroll in the UHD/Lone Star College-Kingwood joint-admissions program for future teachers, which allows community college students to complete an associate degree from LSC-Kingwood and a bachelor's degree from UHD at the Kingwood campus. She completed her graduation requirements in August and is already working as a third grade teacher in the New Caney Independent School District.
Like Read, the vast majority of UHD students already have some job and are seeking a bachelor's or master's degree for a better job or a more secure career. When I asked, "how many the graduates worked 30 hours or more while going to college?", nearly the entire graduating class stood up.
But, a lot of students and quite a few parents are worried about the prospects for jobs in the future. As one graduating student told me, "It's a bit terrifying, to be graduating in this economy. There are so few jobs for students to take. I just hope I can find a job."
This is a natural concern, after all, they are entering an economy that is showing signs of life--but still losing jobs. Nationally, many students will postpone the search for new jobs by entering graduate school or by taking a year off to travel, volunteer with a community organization, or work as low-paid (or even unpaid) interns to build up their resume.
Houston, at least, is better off than most cities in the country and Texas is better off than the majority of states. Even so, Houston's economy is flat. According to projections by the Greater Houston Partnership, job losses in Houston will continue into 2010, with slight gains by the summer and a net gain for 2010 of only 1200 new jobs. So, the economy will be tight for a while.
But, there is great hope from these students. Some will move into graduate programs. Many will become teachers or social workers or doctors. Others will use their diploma to move up the career ladder with companies where they are currently employed.
There was also optimism at the ceremony. As one new graduate told me, "The economy will turn around. I plan to start my own business. Who knows, maybe I'll hire some of these graduates one day."
Good luck to all of you and congratulations!