From mid-May through the end of June, schools around the country are celebrating graduation. High schools, universities, even kindergarten classes acknowledge the end of the academic year with some sort of ceremony. Students spend weeks watching the clock tick down to the last minute, when finally they can say they’ve finished their diploma or degree. “Real life,” they sigh, relieved, “begins now.” But what about the non-traditional students who’ve had to shape their academics around real life? The single moms, the dads, the students who dropped out of high school because they couldn’t afford not to work a full work week?
Non-traditional students - the students who don’t finish high school the first time and return to school as adults - often forgo any graduation ceremony, if they’re even offered one. What’s the point of attending a (more-times-than-not) costly event when their diploma or GED certificate will arrive in the mail? Besides the cost of a gown or a trip, the cost of losing hours at work to attend is just as worrisome. So many of these students don’t go to a ceremony and don’t mark that day as anything really special besides being happy they can finally put that they’ve graduated on their resume. And sometimes, even worse, these students don’t feel they deserve a graduation ceremony. They finished and have their diploma in hand; they’ll acknowledge that they’ve graduated in the official sense but will often feel as if they don’t deserve praise because it’s something they should’ve finished a long time ago.
The act of putting on the cap and gown and walking across the stage marks a rite of passage for young adults who graduate from a traditional high school, but it can be even more important for those non-traditional students. You may have your diploma in hand, but it never seems as important an accomplishment for some until you’re participating in an actual ceremony. Moving through the motions of a graduation ritual - choosing what to wear under your gown, making sure the tassel is on the correct side of the cap, hoping you don’t trip while walking across stage to shake someone’s hand - marks a clear before and after line. Before, you were struggling to juggle work and life, hoping you’d be able to finish school in between. After, you feel officially finished; you’ve crossed the finish line and people are cheering for you.
Standing up, publicly, to receive your congratulations can make everything you’ve worked toward suddenly real. It meant something before, when you just had a letter or piece of paper in your hand, but it means more when you hear the applause and shouts of your family in the audience. Standing up proudly in a cap and gown in school colors provides an opportunity for students who have never felt proud of their accomplishments to shine. In that moment, walking toward the person who holds their ceremonial diploma, their struggles and their triumphs are given center stage, literally. The family and friends scattered through the audience will also share a moment of triumph, accomplishment, realization. If you work for it, and if you have a goal and strive toward it, you can stand proud of what you’ve done just like those older graduates. When they stand at the end of the ceremony and caps are tossed in the air in celebration, we all realize it’s never too late to graduate.