Opinion - Graduation Day: An Occasion for All

May 22, 2018 | Martha D. Saunders, Ph.D.

Kelly Davison and Children in graduation regalia
Kelly Davison and her children, Jon and Michelle Kelley.

I do believe May is my favorite month of the year. In May, the chill of winter is permanently gone, early spring flowers have given way to the heady Deep South fragrance of gardenias and jasmine and the summer storms have yet to arrive. At UWF, the highlight of the month is graduation day when we confer hard-earned bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees to our students and send them off to change the world.

As I was shaking the hands of approximately 1,500 of our newest alumni at a particularly festive commencement ceremony on May 5, I noted just how much graduations have changed over the years. For example, the ages of our graduates have become more diverse. Claira Watford began her time at UWF as a freshman with multiple dual enrollment credits just one year ago. This spring, she graduated magna cum laude at a young 19 years old.

Commencement was a special day for Kelly Davison because she and her two children, Jon and Michelle Kelley, all graduated on the same day. Davison graduated with a degree in workforce and program development through Complete Florida, a program funded by the state that helps those who have already earned some college credit achieve their degrees. Her daughter, Michelle, graduated with a degree in sports management, and her son, Jon, graduated with a degree in hospitality.

As a single mother of two children, Linda Woodard Tierney had given up any dreams of ever being a college graduate. In 2010, she was called upon to take custody of her two oldest grandchildren and decided it was time to make a change. In 2012, she enrolled in classes as a first-generation college student and graduated with her bachelor’s degree in 2016. She walked across our stage this spring to receive her master’s degree, cheered on by her children and her five grandchildren.

In this age of online learning, many of our graduates have never set foot on the campus, but participate in graduation ceremonies via webcast from sites as far away as Oslo, Norway.. We call their names with the other graduates while they celebrate the occasion remotely with their family and friends.

We have tried hard to make the UWF commencement ceremony the best party in town and a memorable occasion for our graduates and their families. Our fall graduation was especially meaningful because we invited our first graduating classes to join us as “golden grads” to close out our 50th anniversary celebration. Forty-eight of our ’67 and ’68 alumni marched proudly in with our newest grads, sporting gold satin stoles created for the occasion. Many of them had not attended their own graduations because of family or military service commitments. The joy and merriment that group brought to our event cannot be measured. I was moved nearly to tears by the sight of them leading the processional with their children and grandchildren cheering them on.

Fortunately, not everything has changed. We still recognize scholarly achievement with the Latin designations of cum laude, magna cum laude, and summa cum laude. We still feature an inspiring talk from a featured speaker, like the one the irrepressible Quint Studer delivered to our undergraduates. And, yes, we still play Pomp and Circumstance for the processional. It’s a catchy tune.