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Sunday, May 22, 2011

Commencement: humbling and inspiring

I attended Commencement today. I haven't gone every year; I have to admit that I have often thought of it as a chore, something I am obligated to do as part of my job, rather than something I look forward to. But as I sat there today, I found myself inspired, rejuvenated, and I felt somewhat ashamed that I had been dreading it. First, as I watched many of my students walk across and get their diplomas (well, diploma holders), and as I listened to their families cheering for them, I felt proud to have been part of their education, to have played some small role in helping them arrive at this day. Not all of them did great in my classes but today, I was full of optimism that they will go out into the world and do good things. And as I watched the graduates interact with their families, particularly as I heard several different languages being spoken by those families, I was reminded how many of my students are the first in their families to graduate from college and I was humbled. I think that for many academics (or anyone with a college degree who mostly hangs around others with college degrees), it is easy to forget that although most Americans have completed 'some college', a college degree is still a relatively rare commodity - fewer than one-quarter of all adults have one. It is not an exaggeration when we emphasize to graduates that earning their diploma is a major accomplishment.

Then in the College ceremony, the speaker was a retiring professor who has taught at SDSU for 40 years and she is the kind of professor that students remember for the rest of their lives. She talked about her expectations for the graduates, starting with a charge to them to fight for the future of the CSU system. She talked about the vision, laid out in California's Master Plan, to make a quality college education available to all who want it and how, as beneficiaries of that system, the graduates have an obligation to make sure that door remains open for all those who come after them. Her words reminded me why I do what I do - not only my job as a educator in this incredible system but the work I do as an economist studying education policy. My job, my career path has not been accidental; it is the result of a conscious decision, made many years ago, to try to "make the world a better place" by ensuring the best possible education for every child. Somewhere in between trying to publish journal articles and worrying about my classes, I think I lost sight of that for a while. It was good to be reminded of that today.

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