While the Covid pandemic is far from gone, we are learning to live with it, treat it, and sadly still die from it. But this past week, Columbia, the university I’ve worked at for over four decades, came roaring back with commencement events for the classes of 2020, 2021 and 2022. I am affiliated with three schools at Columbia: The School of International and Public Affairs, the School of Professional Studies and the Columbia Climate School. I had so many celebrations and events to attend, that I couldn’t go to all of them since several were scheduled at the same time. It was crazy, and absolute joy. Students, faculty, staff and families seemed to be one endless smile. We all exhaled a little beneath our medieval garb of caps, gowns, and hoods. A ritual that had once seemed almost routine was suddenly extraordinary.
From March 2020, when New York City closed down, until 2022, when our new Mayor switched COVID strategies to focus on re-opening the city in the face of COVID, many of us approached going out in public with caution that often bordered on irrational paranoia. Some of that caution persists. But this past week, all of that seemed to fade into the distance. At their commencement, NYU honored, among others, Taylor Swift, while Columbia’s honorees included Patti Smith, Yo-Yo Ma and Hilary Clinton. But the real action was in the audiences of school ceremonies with thousands in attendance and university ceremonies with tens of thousands cheering their graduating family members and friends.
Graduations, like weddings, bar mitzvahs, baptisms, and similar events, are rites of passage. They signify an accomplishment or a status achieved and can often be a turning point when new worlds are opened and explored. American society has become so polarized and individualistic that these community gatherings seem to be growing in importance. They enable us to celebrate the hard work and achievement of our children and friends. They provide a collective experience that transcends ideology. You don’t get to graduate unless you complete your studies. There is no trophy for trying hard and not finishing; you must complete your assignments and meet specific requirements to graduate. And despite pressures to inflate grades and tolerate poor performance, most educators maintain standards, and where I work, those standards are high.
Some commencement addresses are controversial, some like JFK’s American University address in 1963 are historic, and some like Steve Jobs’ address at Stanford in 2005 are truly memorable. At Columbia this year, University President Lee Bollinger issued an important warning about the impact of disinformation on free speech. He correctly identified the threat of fact-free propaganda to research universities and the need to counter lies with truths. It is always reassuring when our leaders respond to times of peril with calls to principle.
While I wouldn’t say I ever took the pageantry of commencement for granted, I think the resumption of in-person ceremonies this year filled me with a surprising degree of joy. As educators, we accommodated ourselves to virtual teaching via Zoom. Our students hung in there and continued to learn. Graduation ceremonies were video productions. They were movies when we really wanted live theatre. No one actually thought the two dimensions of 2020 and 2021 ceremonies could come close to fulfilling the needs met by three dimensional live ceremonies of 2022. Nevertheless, I am truly grateful for the communication technologies that enabled us to stay connected when we could not safely gather together. I am grateful for the hard work and effort that so many put into maintaining that technology and teaching all of us how to use it. There are lessons from this period of personal isolation and technological connection that we will bring with us as we resume in-person life. For example, guest speakers from different locations can be “zoomed” into class without the time and expense of travel.
Last week at Columbia, we made good on our pandemic promise of bringing back those who graduated online and held a commencement-like event that welcomed back the alums whose graduation ceremonies took place on Zoom. It was a bittersweet moment for those graduates. They couldn’t help but be reminded of what they missed. Still, although the class of 2022 was fortunate enough to get a “real” graduation, the path to their day in the sun was far from perfect. For the class of 2022 and for those graduating over the next several years, the impact of the pandemic on their schooling will always be present. Online education is incredibly valuable and provides wonderful access to those who cannot come to campus. Nevertheless, it cannot provide the out-of-classroom learning that takes place in dorm rooms, lounges, bars and cafes. Those informal exchanges remain a critical element of university education. Education during the pandemic truncated out-of-class learning and was often solitary and even lonely. Research will eventually document the impact, which I’m guessing will be more dramatic in lower grades than upper grades. I’m sure it’s too soon to assess long-term educational and psychological outcomes, but I know it’s an experiment no one wanted to undertake.
As we slowly reemerge from isolation, some elements of the pandemic remain. At Columbia’s graduation, COVID and travel restrictions kept many parents away, and many international students have been unable to return home for far too long. Facetime and Zoom help, but our pre-COVID world was one built on convenient international travel, and that world remains far out of reach. International fieldwork and study abroad remain stymied by health restrictions, quarantines and the fear of travel interrupted by a positive COVID test.
As we joined together during these ceremonial rites of passage, the many crises of the modern world continued, and tempered our pleasure. Extreme weather from climate change, Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, COVID, rising crime rates and the horrific racist mass homicide in Buffalo are but a few of last week’s troubling headlines. Our joy at witnessing accomplishment is closely connected to our determination to persevere in the face of these many challenges.
For me personally, last week provided the immense satisfaction of watching over 200 students graduating from the two master’s programs I lead at Columbia: The MPA in Environmental Science and Policy and the MS in Sustainability Management. Graduates of these programs are devoting their careers to protecting the planet while ensuring equitable economic growth. I watched our students graduating and flashed back to their arrival at orientation when they first joined our community. Working together, challenging their faculty and each other, they learned technical skills, theoretical concepts and the contextual background of our global crisis of environmental sustainability. They then learned to apply these lessons to move toward solutions and, in the process, became problem-solving sustainability professionals. This learning process persisted through the pandemic and continues through the crises of the modern world.
The pomp and circumstance may have come and gone, but thousands of students are graduating from school this spring. They will now apply the lessons they’ve learned in the world of work. The work world will continue to change and so even though we certify our graduates and issue them well-earned degrees, their learning process will need to continue throughout their work life. Technological change has already required auto mechanics to become computer and electrical engineers and web designers to learn new software. The punch cards I used to compute quantitative analyses when I was in graduate school are probably in some museum of old technologies. The changes will continue, but the reappearance of caps, gowns, hoods, paper diplomas, and smiling friends and families provide continuity and reassurance. I am happy that I got to see that once again, last week.