Graduation day. A jubilant sea of relieved and hopeful students in caps and gowns, marching in slow procession, faces beaming, while proud parents in the audience applaud, cheer and snap pictures. Is there any sight more inspiring? Not for me. As a college president, I had the joyful privilege of officiating at commencement twice a year for 14 years, and I can honestly say that my final commencement in May 2008 was as thrilling as my first in February 1995.
I shook hands with each of the 597 members of the class of 2008, and found myself thinking how much has changed even in the (relatively) short time since I first arrived at Barnard. During my years on our Manhattan campus, we lived through the events of September 11; the technological revolution that brought us the online, cell-phone and instant-messaging age; the growing environmental crisis; the extended tragedy of the Iraq War, and the rise of an increasingly noisy (and nosy) media-obsessed culture. These years also saw a significant generational shift, as the "baby bust" Gen-Xers settled into the work force and the children of baby boomers reached college age in huge and anxiety-ridden numbers. Just as it was for the students of a decade or more ago, it's still "the economy, stupid!" Members of this era's college generation are worriedly focused on acquiring grades, degrees and jobs that will enable them to repay student loans and achieve a measure of financial security.
A heartening difference that I see, though, is that today's youth, connected to events and people halfway around the world by the Internet, also see themselves as global citizens responsible for the well-being of others and the survival of the planet. Many are increasingly entrepreneurial. At the same time, I'd always been concerned that—until the extraordinary 2008 election year—most students maintained a deep cynicism about the political process, and stubbornly kept their distance from the electoral arena. I came of age in the 1960s, during a time when politics were inseparable from personhood, and it was unconscionable not to try to affect the electoral process. Recent events have brought politics back to daily conversation in the dining hall, and the resulting voter-registration drives, campaign road trips, debate-watching parties and panel discussions on campus have been satisfying to watch and help facilitate. I hope the excitement surrounding the election will linger long into the next administration.
For students and everyone else, much political activity, research and even socializing now takes place online. Most of the changes the Internet has brought to higher education have been positive—including easier communication between and among faculty and students, exciting new pedagogies based on software programs and fingertip access to scholarly works—but the improvements have come at a cost. Multitasking students hooked to their laptops, iPods and cell phones are less likely than their mid-1990s predecessors to engage in undistracted face-to-face conversation with classmates, friends and professors, or in quiet contemplation alone or with a (non-assigned) book.
And these days, the person at the other end of a virtual conversation is as likely to be a parent as a friend. I'm mostly delighted to see the trusting, respectful and friendly relationships that predominate between college students and their parents today. But parental involvement in students' daily lives has shifted into overdrive. It can be a challenge for students to develop into independent, resourceful adults if they're on the phone with Mom or Dad several times a day.
Like every family facing the college years, I'm also now entering a new stage of life, and the fresh challenges and opportunities it will bring. In fact, life is a continual commencement—usually without the speeches and honors, but always with pride in what we've accomplished, gratitude to teachers and mentors, loving appreciation for friends and family, and nervous but eager anticipation about what lies ahead.