When Reality Sets in for Graduates

In May of this year, I spoke at the commencement ceremony of my alma mater, Southwest Minnesota State University, and also spoke at our own Saint Paul College commencement ceremony. Both occasions were quite similar in many ways. Graduation day is a highly charged and emotional day, not only for the graduates, but also for their families. Like any celebration that marks the on-going journey to the next phase in life, after elation comes the new reality. This new reality will have its own moments of elation, of course, but it will include the need for more hard work, more learning, more maturing and more personal and professional growth.

How do we help our graduates? How do we best serve them beyond a sound academic foundation? One way, certainly, is to make sure college is a good investment for our students. I wrote in my last blog, that keeping college affordable is paramount in protecting our students' future financial standing. The Minnesota legislature and governor are helping to make that happen with a required tuition freeze for all institutions in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, of which Saint Paul College is a part. As educators, we must have the integrity to ensure that the programs and classes offered by every post-secondary institution, including Saint Paul College, meet today's economic and employability standards. Students must also have the opportunity to learn personal and social competence skills, as well as attain problem solving and abstract thinking skills. Upon graduating from our colleges, not only should there be employment opportunities for our graduates, but jobs providing a livable wage. I believe that every institution can always do better. We all can be more nimble in making changes in our program and course offerings so that by the time someone finishes a program they started, there is still a market out there for them. That is a good investment.

Without getting into another hot topic of "is college worth it" or whether or not graduating from expensive private colleges really lands everyone a job with a large salary, I think it is fair to say that Saint Paul College, as a public institution, has been committed to providing the best education possible for each and every one of our students at a very affordable rate. We want their education to be extraordinary and affordable. We owe it to our students. We owe it to our city. We owe it to our state. We owe it to the employers who will be hiring our students. We owe it to the four-year institutions that will be transferring in our students. Knowledge is power and we want our graduates to be empowered. We want them to be successful. We want them to be employed, earning a livable wage. We want them to continue to contribute to society and be able give to others. All of these things can be a part of their reality and of our reality.

Graduates looking for employment must look at the reality of the economy, and for some graduates, it means accepting the fact that not everyone starts out at $75,000 per year. Not everyone starts out at $30,000 per year, either. Reality bites, we know. Not everyone can afford to go to every college without going into monstrous debt and mortgaging their future. That might not be fair, but it is the truth. Education is not a childhood little league baseball or soccer game, that no matter what the score we yell "Yaaay! You WON!" Not everyone wins. Honestly, winning is NOT everything. But personal success and gratification is within everyone's reach if we work for it. We must make sure that we are vocal about how valuable that is. Far too many young people have magical thinking about achievements and success. It may look like achievements come effortlessly to successful, prosperous and, of course, famous people. Or that the successful and famous are just "born lucky." I like the quotation from Calvin Coolidge about persistence: "Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence," which usually resonates with students -- and the rich and famous as well. In this economic recovery, practicing persistence is another reality.

It still is a tough economy in many respects. We have not yet recaptured all the lost jobs, and in some sectors, it is probably true that the jobs lost will never be recovered. Then again, there are some new areas that are doing well that didn't exist before the economy started its free fall. We, as post-secondary institutions, must always be cognizant of the supply and demand fluctuation in all areas of the employment arena and respond accordingly. Some graduates may already have jobs lined up in their new chosen profession. Some graduates who worked their way through college may already have a promotion waiting for them in the wings. Sometimes I think graduates of community and technical colleges are luckier than graduates of 4-year institutions because of our close connections and partnerships with manufacturing, building trades, unions, business and industry.

I tell our students to never give up, to never stop, to actively participate in their own life and education regardless of the economic situation. We have all seen students and people in our lives just give up, stop trying. We need to help them get back on track and not to be discouraged due to set-backs. Sometimes students freeze up, and just stop. We need to help them see that inaction is an action of sorts. It takes a conscious effort to be inactive, non-participatory, letting the chips fall where they may. So many of our students at Saint Paul College have experienced more hardship, obstacles, and sometimes absolute brutality, whether born here in the United States or somewhere else in this world, than many of us can even imagine. Yet they are still resilient, vibrant, and wonderful individuals, which is a testament to the strength of the human spirit. That's what makes this college such a marvelous place to be. Our students truly inspire me.

To graduates everywhere, I say "Congratulations. Job well done!" and most importantly, keep believing in yourself, keep growing, and enjoy your every success. Be purposeful and intentional. And persistent.