The following article first appeared in the December 24, 2014, Fennimore Times as part of its “Buzz About Town” series. It is reprinted here with permission from Fennimore Times Editor Rob Callahan.
I love graduation ceremonies! For graduating students and their families, they are a celebration of achievement and a beginning of what comes next. For faculty and staff members, they mark the end of another semester and the beginning of a well-earned, though brief respite. Graduations drip with pride of accomplishment, camaraderie, and joy!
I have participated in more graduations than I care to count. The most recent was Southwest Wisconsin Technical College’s Winter 2014 Graduation Ceremony. Mr. Jim Kohlenberg, Vice Chairperson of the Board of Directors, conferred sixty-eight degrees and diplomas.
Ms. Megan Hamilton, 2008 barber/cosmetology alumna and owner of Tres Chic Salon in Lancaster, offered the invited speech. Another entrepreneur, Ms. Katy Cleary presented the graduating student speech. Ms. Cleary is a licensed auctioneer and owner of Katy’s Corral, a horse and tack business in Volga, Iowa. She received an associate’s degree in business management. Both women spoke of the importance of their instructors and Southwest Tech in their lives and toward their business success.
Graduations everywhere have similarities and differences. All are formal ceremonies and joyous celebrations. All recognize the achievements of students and confer the credentials those students have earned. All include speeches and music. Most involve the wearing of academic regalia, including gowns, funny hats, and—depending on the unique achievements of the individual—stoles, cords, or hoods. The differences among graduations are always interesting and based in the unique culture, practices, and traditions of different institutions.
My baccalaureate graduation at the University of Illinois was a mass, impersonal affair. Individual graduates were not recognized; the student body simply stood as a whole to hear the president confer all the degrees at once. When I learned I would have worse Assembly Hall seats for graduation than I had for the preceding basketball season, I decided to skip the ceremony. A few years later at Iowa State University, Dr. Richard Shibles, my faculty advisor and mentor, walked onto the stage with me and placed the doctoral hood I had earned over my head.
My son Simon’s graduation from kindergarten was a hoot. He and his fellow graduates wore white capes and mortar boards. The ceremony involved more than a few teachers seeking to keep some semblance of order. His graduation from Hickman High School, Columbia, Missouri included a quirky surprise. Hickman’s giant, nearly naked Kewpie mascot made an appearance to high-five the graduates as they marched out.
At several places I have been, including Southwest Tech, graduation includes stories about the lives and journeys of individual students and alums. Often inspirational and moving, these stories personalize and add meaning to any ceremony.
At Southeast Missouri State University, President Dale F. Nitzchke always told a few such stories. I remember him telling about a mother and daughter, each of whom had to overcome significant life barriers to graduate on the same day, and of a student who survived a car wreck and received his degree from Dr. Nitzchke with his family gathered around his hospital bed. At the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, graduation day includes a luncheon where leading alumni and graduating students are recognized. As dean, I had the honor of telling the stories of some of those people. At Southwest Tech, invited and student speeches usually include personal stories.
Over the years, I have participated in graduation ceremonies that not everyone gets to enjoy. I have been the invited speaker at Stanley Correctional Institution and at Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution. Wisconsin prison graduations are much like any graduation. Families gather; everyone is happy. Inmate musicians—including individual performers, rock bands, gospel groups, and Native American drummers—provide the best music.
On the other end of the criminal justice spectrum, I routinely participate in Southwest Tech’s police and jail academy graduations. These include delightful traditions, such as the graduates reciting the Wisconsin Law Enforcement Code of Ethics and Mr. George Dulzo, Criminal Justice Instructor, delivering his advice for young police officers.
The largest and most elaborate graduation I ever participated in was at South Central University for Nationalities, Wuhan, China. It involved tens of thousands of students and guests and several different ceremonies, including a magnificent outdoor dance and musical performance that was literally a miniature version of the opening ceremonies for the Olympic Games.
One of the best graduations I ever experienced was here in Fennimore. A couple of years ago, District Administrator Jamie Nutter and Principal Dan Bredeson gave me the honor of being their invited speaker. It was the first and only graduation, outside of a Wisconsin prison, to which I have been invited to speak.
Graduations have always been special to me. I love the pride, joy, ceremonies, traditions, speeches, music, and occasional quirks. May 2015, I will participate in the last such ceremony in my career. I suspect it will be a bittersweet, yet wholly enjoyable experience.