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Faculty reflect on the joy and unforgettable moments of commencements past

Commencement is a time of reflection, excitement, and celebration. With commencement for the Class of 2017 just days away, we caught up with several faculty members who reflected on their own graduations and those they’ve attended as faculty.

Jessica Silbey, law professor, School of Law

Graduation memory: Stanford University, 1992, bachelor’s degree

Stanford’s notorious band, the Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band, started playing in the stadium, and as people marched out on to the football field, a huge blue tarp was laid out. A hose was handed to a tuba player who sprayed the tarp, and then many, many band members and graduates went slip sliding before all the families there in Palo Alto waiting for the commencement to begin. My father laughed so hard, and I thought it was a wonderfully playful and liberating way to celebrate four long, wonderful years working and studying and making friends.

John Basl, assistant professor of philosophy, College of Social Sciences and Humanities

Graduation memory: University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2011, doctorate

I mostly remember feeling gratitude that day. I was grateful that much of my family made the trip to see me graduate, grateful to my then-fiancé, now-wife, for making the arrangements for the visitors and celebration, and especially for the support that made getting my degree possible.

I also keenly remember being grateful to my Ph.D. supervisor, Elliott Sober. As was custom, Elliott attended the ceremony with his graduating students. I worried over this a fair bit; here was a person who had already dedicated a lot of time and intellectual effort to my education, and here I was dragging him out on what would have otherwise been a day off to attend a long ceremony. Elliott, as was also customary, was more than happy to set aside time for his students. He sat with us—there were two of us—through the ceremony where we passed the time easily, chatting and doing what philosophers tend to do when near one another: arguing.

After the hooding, he made time to talk with my family and the family of my colleague. I’ve since attended many commencement ceremonies and, surprisingly, it is still gratitude that is most salient on that day. As I walk among the students, seeking out students who I have had in my classes, I feel grateful for the time, effort, and energy they’ve expended in my classes and the classes of my colleagues, their contributions to campus life, and for the ways they’ll carry their education out into the world.

Michelle Jacobs, assistant clinical professor, Bouvé College of Health Sciences

Graduation memory: University of California, San Francisco, 1995, doctorate

On graduation day, my friend Mark said to me, “We need to take a picture of us right now, because we know more right now than we will ever know.” We took that picture. We were sooooo wrong.

William J. Fowler, Distinguished Professor of History, College of Social Sciences and Humanities

Graduation memories: University of Notre Dame, 1969, Master of Arts; 1971, doctorate

In the old days, the Boston Garden was not air conditioned, and we were always hot. It was when we followed the circus that it got interesting, with all sorts of scents in the air.

When President Bill Clinton gave the address in 1993, I was sitting, as a marshal, in the front row. As the president took the podium in front of me, it was obvious that his hood was crooked. As he began his remarks, a university officer came down from behind and tapped me on the shoulder. He suggested that I move forward and fix the president’s hood. Sitting next to me was a Secret Service agent. So here I was—should I walk toward the back of the president and extend my arms around his neck to fix the hood? I turned to the agent and asked if that was wise. He very calmly said “NO.” I remained seated—wise choice.

The Clinton appearance also sent my heart into stoppage. At a previous ceremony (some years before), the speaker was very late in showing up. The speaker finally showed up, but that sent a caution: we had had no backup. Shortly after this happened, I got a call. The university president wanted me to prepare an address just in case someone did not show up. So, for a few commencements I carried a speech in my pocket. Then came the moment. President Clinton was very late in showing up and so here I was, terrified that if he did not arrive I would be called upon. Can you imagine: ‘The president is not here but we got Bill Fowler.’ That would have emptied the Garden. Thank God he showed up. Later, however, I did get a chance to give my address, when the university presented me with an honorary degree in 2000.

My last memory goes back to heady days of the ’70s. At the end of degree presentation as we escorted the presidential party back down the aisle, the students started celebrating in a way that was only recently legalized in Massachusetts. The smell was in the air and to this day I am not sure that as I walked down the aisle my feet were not a few inches off the floor.

All in all, commencements are among the happiest memories I have. There is nothing to equal seeing the joy of the students and listening to the applause of family, friends, and partners.

Jessica Edwards George, associate clinical professor and program director of Clinical Training, Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology Program, Bouvé College of Health Sciences

Triple Husky: graduated Northeastern University, 2002, bachelor’s degree; 2003, master’s degree; 2007, doctorate

What I remember most are the smaller interactions with the faculty and with my family at graduation. One in particular stands out: My husband was (jokingly) asking one of the faculty whether there was an honorary degree for spouses who supported people through their Ph.D. It rings true—it takes a village to get people through a Ph.D.

The other thing that stands out—especially at the Ph.D. level—is your relationships with faculty are so close that the significance of them hooding you is really palpable. It’s symbolic of the faculty passing the torch.


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