When I got a graduate degree from an American university a couple of years ago, I had a lot of international friends who’d come to study. We all went to the graduation ceremony together. Everybody who had graduated gathered outside in their caps and gowns, ouside in a huge field. A few odd customs were observed, then various college officials gave speeches, then came the speech by the invited guests.
Everybody then retired to separate cerremonies in other parts of campus for the actual handing-out of the degrees. Everyone who graduated in, say, law got together and waited for their name to be called. The foreign students were asked to email pronunciation hints before the ceremony to help the announcer. Those who forgot heard "Bu-La-Ti, uhh, Goo-lik-ma-norp. I think." The dean personally handed you your college diploma, bound with a red ribbon, then shook your hand, and congratulated you for a job well-done. Photographers took pictures at the exact moment when the degree changed hands. Large families gathered, everybody beamed with pride, some people cried.
My European friends were impressed (not always positively) by several things about American universities: how much they cost; the competition among the students; how shiny, new, and high-tech the buildings were; and the fact that students spent a lot of time studying, didn’t cheat, and respected the brightest classmates instead of envying them.
But all of them loved the graduation ceremony. I was stunned to find out that such things didn’t exist in Europe, but it’s true, they largely don’t. I was reminded of this intercultural experience by a recent encomium to graduation ceremonies, from American blogger Siva Vaidhyanathan:
…if you are ever too down or frustrated about the state and direction of our nation, just spend a day hanging around Florida International University in Miami. Or, better yet, slip in to a graduation ceremony there, as I did yesterday. I have been to dozens of university commencements. And this was by far the best.
Florida International is a 34-year-old public university that sits west of downtown Miami. It has one of the most ethnically diverse populations of any university I have ever seen. It started out as a commuter school but has grown into an ambitious residential research university. …Living up to its name, it attracts students from hundreds of national origins and represents the vitality and diversity of South Florida very well.
At the graduation ceremony, I was deeply struck by the looks of awe and respect that these graduates’ families had for their efforts. These were not folks who took this opportunity for granted. They had no sense of entitlement. They were modest and directed.
The ceremony itself was no-nonsense, unpretentious, and fun. There was no long-winded address by some famous person who charged $20,000 to tell students to give back to their community. Students spoke. Faculty spoke. Everyone was brief. At one point the president of the university, Modesto A. Maidique, asked all the students who graduated cum laude to raise their hands. Then he asked if any had a grade point average of 3.98. Three did. He asked them to come to the stage — impromptu — and tell everyone how they did it and which professor gave them the A minus. The students were shy and witty. They were clearly moved and tickled by this move. The three students with such a high record of achievement, one could not help but notice, were from Peru, Argentina, and Trinidad.
On a day when immigrants all around the nation were letting people understand [(G) – link added] just how essential they are to our daily lives, these three students stood out and promised us all excellence and inspiration. They stood for the dynamic opportunity that still exists all over this great nation.
As they told their stories, I could not help but reflect on how much of the recent immigration debate has focused on immigrants as labor (muscle) vs. immigrants as skill sets (engineers), as if those were all that immigrants bring to this country….But no one counts imagination, inspiration, and chutzpah. You can’t quantify that stuff. Immigrants refresh and reset our national imaginations. They remind us what is possible and introduce us to new possibilities. They check those of us fortunate enough to be born here from getting too comfortable, complacent, or whiney.