COLUMN: Barb Gustafson — June 26, 2014

Barb Gustafson
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Barb Gustafson

It’s June and we’re in the midst of graduation season, from high schools and post-secondary institutions. It’s an emotional time, bittersweet in that it’s simultaneously an ending and a beginning.

For the students, it’s the end of a time of close daily contact with friends and teachers, an exit from a place of safety to a world of exciting unknowns. For parents, it’s a celebration of their children’s achievements and a sadness that a stage of life has ended. For teachers, it’s a time to cheer for the achievers -- those who got As and also those who passed with a 52 – to sigh with relief that the challenging students are out the door, and to feel good about the work you do each day that leads to this conclusion.

Every graduation ceremony includes a commencement speech. These words of wisdom are usually delivered by a former graduate who has gone on to do well, or the recipient of an honorary diploma. I have never had the chance to give a commencement speech (hint to my alma mater) but I have heard many, since I tend to attend graduations.

From some of them, I even remember bits and pieces of the address. I suspect, however, that the nuggets of advice in these speeches are wasted on the intended recipients: the graduates, who are busy thinking about the party to come, how uncomfortable that polyester gown is to wear, or which side of their hat the tassel should be on.

The speeches I do remember, at least in part, tend to be ones given when I was not a graduate, but an observer to the festivities. Based on this primary research, gathered at dozens of graduation ceremonies, that the parents are more likely than the grads to be focused on the speech, I offer this advice (a sort of speech) to them, the support system to the graduate.

Remember that being a grad is scary. While your student may say “I can’t wait to get out of here” and seem confident about the path ahead, this is a big change. For a significant period of time, they have lived in a cocoon where sustenance and direction was provided by you, by teachers and by a system that divided the days by bells, learning into classes, and years into semesters.

When people ask “so, what are you doing these days?” the answer of “going to school” is immediately acceptable. Good for you -- you’re in pre-med, pre-law, pre-work. When people ask and you answer “I just graduated,” the next question will be “so, do you have a job lined up?” The minute after the grad gown is handed back, you’re expected to know what you’re doing with your life. That’s a lot of pressure. Be reassuring.

Remember that graduation is not the end of learning. These days, postsecondary training is expected for the majority of high school grads. But after that first degree or diploma, there may be another, or yet another, needed. Sometimes, the work world changes and you need to learn something new to fit in. Sometimes, our view of the world changes and we need to find a new path. Either way, don’t be surprised if your grad becomes a student again. Be supportive.

Remember that this life is the grad’s life, not yours. You probably have dreams and expectations for your child, and that’s great, but it is not your life to direct. Pushing someone into a mold that doesn’t fit, whether that’s training to take over the family business or for a profession you always wanted, will only irritate both of you and possibly waste a lot of time and money.

Sometimes it takes a while to find a good fit, and you may find yourself biting your tongue to avoid giving advice, but the right path (for your grad) will usually appear. Be patient.

Remember that success is highly personal, and is not guaranteed. One of my favourite commencement speeches, which is available on YouTube, is by Steve Jobs to Stanford University graduates. Jobs related his story of how his parents almost went bankrupt to send him to college, only to have him drop out. Starting out in a garage, he rose to become the head of Apple and changed our view of computers forever, then was ousted from his own company and left aimless.

 He claims that failure was the best thing that ever happened to him, and ultimately made him a far better person. Comedian Conan O’Brien told a similar story to graduates at Harvard when invited to speak at his former school, comparing success to “a bright, white tuxedo” that you’re afraid of spoiling. Especially for those high-achieving graduates, the pressure to continue to succeed is tough, and failure – let’s face it – will come in one form or another.

The lessons learned through not succeeding are worth more than those found in continuous accolades. Be sympathetic, and then strongly encouraging.

Remember to celebrate 88 attend graduations. Despite the uncertainty that lies ahead, how goofy grad gowns look and feel, and the unreality of the whole ceremony, it’s an important marker. Assert your parental right to see your grad walk across the stage. Make him stop so you can get a picture. Throw a party or go for dinner. Graduation is an end; graduation is a beginning. There’s no better reason to celebrate. Be happy.


Barb Gustafson is a lifelong resident of Prince Albert, and a former managing editor and publisher of the Prince Albert Daily Herald. Email:

Organizations: Prince Albert, Stanford University, Apple Harvard

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