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What it Means to Graduate and Commence

For those of you who didn’t see this piece by Sarah Spykman, KSC English alum and “Gatekeeper” of the Media Arts Center, in last Sunday’s Sentinel, we thought it was worth sharing.

(Ed. note: This column originally appeared in _The Keene Sentinel_. Reprinted with permission.)

It’s that time of the year on campus. The graduation platform is erected on the quad. Soon the fencing will begin to appear and, bit-by-bit, the mixed and messy thoughts of students, faculty or staff emerge: anxiety, relief, triumph, disappointment, anticipation. It’s the culmination of a four-ish year pursuit of a diploma; then on to the next thing. That’s one kind of graduation and commencement, but there are other indications of progress on campus.

At the Child Development Center, each child has grown in body and mind by degrees, and some will in fact graduate to commence an elementary school experience. And, in offices around campus, certain staff and faculty are planning and organizing and packing. They are graduating beyond this place to commence a variety of pursuits. With so much momentum behind it, it’s an odd thing to call that kind of graduation “retiring.”

Jean Whitcomb is one of those who have decided to move on to pursue the next thing. And, we who know her can only stand at the edge of the gaping hole she will leave and shake our heads in dismay. In the thirty plus years she’s worked on the campus of Keene State College, she has changed by degree, gradually, in increments of intangible gain, until she has become incalculably accomplished and valuable.

I have only known Jean for around a decade of her tenure at KSC—first, peripherally, as a pesky non-traditional student to her calm self in the office of the Dean of Arts and Humanities, then as a coworker. I worked with Jean in the dean’s office and learned much more than which-form-for-which-thing. If you were lucky enough to have worked with Jean, you learned, by degrees, how to be a little braver, a little stronger, a little more patient, and willing to admit to your own failings. You learned when to speak up, and when to be quietly firm.

This is how we graduate—one lesson, one moment, one accomplishment or failure at a time.

I watch students come to campus to see what this college world is all about. Sometimes they stand in the background as their questioning parents inquire about programs and requirements. Then, the school year begins. They have graduated high school and commenced the pursuit of a college degree, and they are on their own.

I watch them maneuver. I watch them question. I watch them fail and, hopefully, try again. I watch them, over semesters and years, become a little braver, a little stronger. I watch them become a little more patient with themselves and others.

Gradually they learn to step from the background and become self-advocates. They—the ones who realize that this is not a race—learn to take responsibility for their own weak efforts and become accountable. If they haven’t initially come armed with curiosity, I watch as some grasp at the threads of ideas and unravel mysteries. They come to their own conclusions; they learn how to ask incrementally better questions; and they dare to enter the ongoing conversation of scholarship. They emerge.

It’s around this time of year that I will hear the murmurs of folks realizing that something is about to change. Exceptional students, who have challenged and collaborated with their mentors, will leave deficits. Other students, who have only recently realized that they could have tried harder, will regret that they didn’t set a higher bar for themselves. Faculty and staff who are moving on will miss a community in which they had become integral, and they will be missed in return. This organism that is a college campus will recover and reform from its losses in time to begin again and again each new semester, offering opportunities for incremental growth for those who are willing.

Back when I used to work in Jean’s office, we used to talk about her future retirement. I joked with her that she was indispensable, so I was going to build her a gazebo in the middle of campus. I promised that it would be warm in winter and cool in summer, and that she could set her own hours. But during the hours she was on duty, passersby could read the sign above her window— “Ask Jean. She knows.”—and be calmly guided to an answer.
Much as I’d like to keep Jean here, I know that it’s selfish. We’ve all got to grow by small gradations, until we are ready to commence the next thing. And we each leave a hole, differentiated only by how deep we were willing to dig.

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