It’s May, and along with the return of leaves to our trees and the sense of life returning and reviving, here at Columbia, the campus landscapers are working nonstop, and the Commencement viewing stands have been constructed. Tents are set up for Class Day graduation ceremonies, and senior university administrators are praying for a sunny, mild day when 30,000 people assemble outdoors at the center of our campus with the ever-majestic Low Library in the background and the semi-iconic Butler Library in the foreground. For the past several weeks, students have been posing for photographs in their caps and gowns with campus landmarks in the background. All of this is building to the week when families, friends, and graduates gather in predictable but always moving ceremonies signifying the profound accomplishment of earning a degree from our university.
In both 2020 and 2021, Columbia’s graduation ceremonies were held virtually and while it was better than nothing, it was more than a little sad to see. Last year, we were back in person and in three dimensions, and we held two ceremonies—one for last year’s graduates and a second ceremony for those that graduated without an in-person ceremony. I remember that with face-to-face graduation in 2022, it seemed as if we could all finally exhale. People were so happy to be together, and nearly everyone sensed the arrival of the long-awaited return to normalcy that took so long to show up. The pandemic was a time of misery, of sick and dying people, missed family events, and forgone opportunities to connect. As we returned last year, I gained a deeper appreciation for these rites of passage and their importance to our way of life. Graduation ceremonies are a time to step back, reflect, and savor progress and accomplishments.
Similar ceremonies are being held this month in colleges, high schools, junior highs, elementary schools, and even daycare centers. One of my favorite pictures of my eldest granddaughter is the one of her in her little cap and gown with her mother as she participated in a daycare graduation ceremony in a park in Washington Heights. These ceremonies signify much more than the passage of time — they are evidence of work, dedication, and sacrifice. For some families, they are seeing the first of their family to achieve the degree that’s been earned. For graduates this year, nearly all have endured the misery of education during the pandemic, and for many, their studies had to overcome isolation and loneliness.
There are lots of discussions of the monetary value of a college education and if it is worth the cost. Education has gotten more expensive as universities have worked to meet growing student (and parent) demand for higher quality services and facilities. Costs are also rising due to growing regulatory requirements, as well as a culture that demands that institutions care for the physical and psychological needs of their members. There are also issues resulting from well-paid senior faculty who don’t do much teaching and adjunct faculty, graduate teaching assistants, and lecturers who teach a great deal for very little pay. We hear discussions about the threats to free speech on campus from politicians who are trying to make ideological political points and from students who have become so used to hearing their own voices they are offended when confronted with voices they disagree with. On graduation day, most, if not all, of these issues recede into the background as politics takes a back seat to family, friends, and the celebration of accomplishment.
I have now been teaching at Columbia for over four decades and directing master’s programs at the university since 1985. I look forward to this time of year and to meeting the people who have emotionally and financially supported the students I’ve had the privilege of teaching. No one accomplishes a degree in higher education on their own. There are mentors, role models, friends, and family that provide advice as well as moral and financial support and are available at 3 AM for the phone call begging for reassurance. While some of my students are undergraduates, most are graduate students securing professional degrees in environmental science and policy or sustainability management. One of the important tasks of our programs and our faculty is to help connect our students to professional opportunities. We do this because we want to be helpful to our students, but we also do it because we know how terrific our graduates are and are confident that we are doing a favor to the organizations that hire them. The celebration of graduation and the anxiety of navigating a complicated job market mix together in a swirl of emotions as the academic year comes to an end.
As an educator, I am blessed with the opportunity to see my students grow intellectually and professionally during the time they are in school, and in some cases, I can track their progress after they graduate. I work in a field that is growing as the world seeks to figure out how to build prosperity without destroying our planet. I am proud of the progress of our graduates, and I take enormous satisfaction when I see the contribution of many of our alumni to the achievement of sustainability goals and to making our world a better place. In a field that is developing as rapidly as environmental policy and sustainability management, I recognize that I along with my students, graduates, and other faculty must be life-long learners to remain competent professionals in our field. When I was younger, developments like the internet, smartphones, cloud computing, and amazing software tools required constant technical training. In addition, new substantive fields of study such as life cycle analysis, greenhouse gas measurement, and supply chain management emerged and required study and understanding. Today we see the development of artificial intelligence and contemplate both the dangers and opportunities these new discoveries present. To minimize risk and maximize benefits we need to study and understand these new technologies.
The academy is under attack today, and freedom of inquiry and freedom of speech is never guaranteed. Some educational institutions seem unable to resist angry internal voices that seek to silence speakers and teachers they disagree with. These educational institutions seem equally helpless in the face of politicians, parents, and angry external voices that seem to confuse education, which involves the free exchange of ideas, with propaganda or advocacy. Freedom of inquiry, debate, questioning, and civil discourse is central to learning. Sometimes we learn things about the world of the past and the world of the present we wished were not true. Reality is not always pretty, but hiding facts guarantees we will not learn and progress.
While education in the modern world must remain constant and intense, graduation ceremonies provide us with an opportunity to pause and reflect. Sitting on the stage in my cap and gown, I look at the graduates in their medieval garb smiling and cheering, but I also look at their families and friends, and I may be projecting a bit, but along with their joy I think I also see pride and a little bit of amazement. For a parent, one can’t help remembering a child’s first sounds and first steps, and suddenly, in what seems like a nanosecond later, a parent sees that child is now an adult, on their own, shaking hands with professors and deans. In a world of strife and struggle and in a nation of partisan polarization, these moments are precious and meant to be treasured.
Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.