This May I attended my first ever commencement as a faculty member. I really didn’t know what to expect. People I know who teach at other colleges told me to expect two things – that it would be a very enjoyable experience to see so many students walk across the stage and that it would be very hot sitting on stage. Both of those expectations definitely held true. Five of my former students walked across the stage and I clapped and cheered for all five of them. And it was very hot sitting on the stage. The room that we were in was the only room in the entire building that was not climate controlled. The rest of the building had air conditioning, just not the room that we sat in for a dreadful 105 minutes in hot caps and gowns.
But there is a point to this story. As a part-time instructor, I always wanted to attend commencement to cheer on my students. However, there were multiple reasons why I didn’t. One of the reasons was that I was always teaching at another college when commencement was going on. The other reason was that I felt a little awkward going to cheer on students as they graduate from college with the hopes that the degree they just earned would help them get a new job, when I actually didn’t believe it was true. I had been applying for full-time jobs for at least six years with no avail. How could I encourage students that it would be OK and that they would be able to find a job after graduation, when I couldn’t even find a job myself?
Of course, I have known many part-time instructors over the years who work full-time somewhere else, so they never had this issue. But for someone who worked part-time as a sole means of a making a living, I felt like I would have been a different class than everyone else at the commencement. Even after attending my first commencement, I still don’t know if this would have been true or not. I felt strange simply being the only math instructor sitting on the stage. I felt strange sitting on stage surrounded by other faculty members who are PhD graduates, when I am so close to getting my PhD, but just haven’t cared to finish yet. I felt strange sitting on stage with my cap put on backward because I put it back on incorrectly after taking it off during the Pledge of Allegiance. I felt strange sitting right behind the President of the College and knowing that my face was probably on camera on the big screens during the entire ceremony. I felt strange having people cheer and clap for me, when I thought it was supposed to be a day for the students, not for the faculty. I felt strange finding out after the whole thing that the cap and gown I was wearing was rented, which means I have no clue how many other people have sat on a stage and sweated in it just like I have.
And yet, despite everything that was strange in my mind about this night, I have to say that I would definitely do it again. It was worth it to be able to tell my five students that walked across the stage that night that I was there to support them. It was worth it to have my students tell me that it was great to have been remembered as a student in my class. It was worth it to see the excitement and happiness on everyone’s face that night. I came out of this night learning something myself – that commencement isn’t a night to feel strange at all. It is a night to celebrate. It’s a night to celebrate the students and all that they have done to get where they are today. It’s a night to show support for the importance of education. It’s a night to let loose and forget about the past and look forward to the future. For the student, a future of being one more step closer to getting the job of their dreams. And for the instructor, a future of being one more step closer to being able to make a positive impact on the life of another student.
That’s what educators are supposed to do. I think somewhere along the line I missed that point. I missed the fact that above all, I needed to believe in the system. I needed to believe that as an educator, one of my primary roles is to make a positive impact on the life of my students. If I was able to do this as a part-time instructor, congratulations to me, because it is quite hard to do this as a part-time instructor