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No Pomp, but Much Circumstance: Graduating into a Post-COVID World

By Gaby Rattner, Barbara's House Executive Director

Many families, including my own, have had to confront the cancellations or complete re-imagining of graduations this year. And it doesn’t matter whether it is an elementary school, high school, Ph.D or religious school commencement. Ceremonies are important and what makes them of such consequence is the presence of those who are most central to your life being there to witness and celebrate with you.

I have been especially struck by the creativity of some schools and families to create different kinds of celebrations to mark this milestone. Automobile parades of graduates, virtual addresses from President and Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Brad Pitt and others, Zoom speeches by valedictorians and salutatorians — these are wonderful examples of overcoming the obstacles imposed by COVID-19.

So are our graduates really graduating? I hope they feel they are. I hope they can find a way through the disappointment over lost festivities to recognize that the fact of the graduation is what is most meaningful. The milestone is in the work they did and the experiences that brought them to this time. Those experiences will be, now more than ever, critical to a successful future in the uncertain world they are joining.

Many is the student who, especially in times of boredom or academic struggle, has questioned why they need to know a particular subject and when they will ever use it in “real life.” The answer, of course, is that in the specifics, the rebellious student may well be right. But graduations, aptly called commencements in that they represent the beginning of whatever comes next, launch people into the world with the skills developed by persevering through those challenging classes. Graduates possess well developed abilities to research a question, solve a problem, think differently about things one takes for granted, learn from what others are doing, collaborate on projects and more.

The world of work has been changing for well over a generation now. But today, in this moment more than ever, the companies and organizations that survive will do so because their leaders are applying those skills on a minute-by-minute basis. The creative ones, the ones who have been able to nimbly change business models and adapt swiftly, are the ones well poised to earn customer loyalty and survive into a future that will doubtless look different than any past. Likewise, the resilient student who has survived not only the rigors of academics but the disappointments of missed prom nights and tossed mortarboards, is the one who is most likely to find success ahead.

Toward the end of the Wizard of Oz, the Wizard bestows gifts to Dorothy’s friends. The gifts, a heart-shaped watch, a medal of honor, and a diploma are stand-ins for the traits each already possesses. Yes, our graduates have been robbed of a public bestowal of their diplomas and medals. Robbery feels very personal, and indeed it is. But I would argue that this graduation year is perhaps among the most momentous in a long, long time. And it is my hope that our children feel a well-earned sense of accomplishment, a success that is also very personal and one that will carry them forward as they bring their skills and talents into the future.


This post first appeared in the Greenwich Sentinel.


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