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High School Graduation versus College Commencement

At a lunch with “mom friends” from my son’s former high school, a mother of both a college grad and high school senior asked if I would write a blog post about the differences between the two rites of passage of high school and college commencement. I promised her I would, as soon as my own son graduated from college and I could compare both experiences.

There were certainly similarities in my feelings on those two glorious days, separated by four years of growth and development. In both cases, I was proud of his academic accomplishments and leadership experiences. In both cases, I was thrilled about, and grateful for, the next step he had procured for himself, in the former case his college acceptance, and in the latter case an entry level job. And yes, my eyes were welling up with tears on both occasions.

I was taken aback, however, by the differences.

When my son graduated from high school, I felt the emotional pangs of that bittersweet rite of passage deeply. I empathize with parents who are going through it this year, whether it be for the first time or the last time.

On one level, a young person’s move to college is huge, for the adolescent as well as for the parents and family he or she leaves behind. But on another level, it is only one more step in becoming comfortable and self-reliant living away from home. It has parallels to beginning sleep-away camp or boarding school, coming home on holidays and  seasonal breaks. When a teenager starts college, his or her  “occupation” is still the same as before: student. It is not my intention to trivialize this pivotal developmental step. I am simply taking some of the sentimentality out of it for a moment, so we can reflect on it vis à vis graduation from college.

American adolescence, at least for the college-bound middle class, is a series of structured milestones that pop up quickly on a relatively short time horizon. Parents and their teens can typically expect events such as bar and bat mitzvah celebrations, confirmations, sweet sixteen parties, learner’s permit and driver’s license, sports championships or performing arts events, junior and senior prom, turning eighteen, applying to college, and finally, high school graduation. As parents and teens live out the intense drama of this six year period, there is always yet another upcoming milestone to anticipate and enjoy. Perhaps it’s a good thing, because the teen years at home are so filled with “guts” that it’s a relief to have frequent breaks for “glory.”

Now let us consider college graduation. Yes, some college graduates go directly on to postgraduate studies, continuing with the same “occupation” of student, scholar or professional-in-training. And many young adults today  “boomerang”  back to their parents’ home for some period of time during their twenties, for a variety of reasons, such as the difficulty of finding a job in a recession or the need to save money to pay off college loans, accumulate capital for grad school or prepare to buy a condo. However, as the mother of a college grad for— ten days now, I believe that college commencement is a rite of passage with far more gravitas than high school graduation, for the young person holding the diploma as well as the parents.


It is no revelation, of course, that Generation Y  young adults are typically not simply stepping from one traditional milestone to another, in a conventional 1950’s chronological order and lickety-split time sequence. Some steps will not be taken in the twenties, if at all. I’m talking about the successive rungs on the educational and career ladder, as well as steps in the realm of personal relationships, marriage, home and family. Today, these career and life-stage steps tend to be spread out as never before, sprawling across the twenties and even the thirties. A parent cannot count on a predictable flow of events by which to measure the progress of one’s adult child. Instead, a parent needs to “go with the flow.”

Graduation from high school is like a ship’s departure from the dock, passing the first buoy in the low wake area of the harbor. But the ship is still within sight, going slow, with a few more predictable buoys in close proximity: freshman Thanksgiving, fraternity rush, sophomore slump, study abroad, summer internships, moving off-campus, turning twenty-one, and so forth. College commencement is figuratively a departure from the harbor itself, entering the open ocean, with its vast expanses, unforeseeable storms, and countless unforgiving dangers. Milestones are nowhere in view. This is the long haul, the real thing, the adult journey.

At college commencement, a proud parent waves goodbye to a brave young adult, captain of one’s own ship now, no longer in the harbor but headed out for the open sea.

Related reading: Emptying the Nest: Launching Your Young Adult toward Success and Self-Reliance by B. Sachs, The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter, and How to Make the Most of Them Now by M. Jay.