Across the Commonwealth and the nation, May is the season for graduation, commencement and final exercises at colleges and universities. Emotionally charged strains of Pomp and Circumstance will set a tone of solemnity and celebration as graduates, clad in regalia of ancient lineage, process in good order to mark the formal conclusion of a major stage in their academic journey and the beginning of a new chapter in their lives. For family, friends, faculty, and dignitaries in attendance, there will be a swelling sense of pride in these students’ accomplishments and a brimming feeling of hope that they are on the verge of something of great promise.
At Thomas Nelson Community College, we will be holding our 44th commencement on Tuesday evening. Nearly 1,400 students will receive associate degrees or certificates. About half of these will be going on to pursue years three and four of their baccalaureate programs at Old Dominion University, Norfolk State University, Christopher Newport University, Hampton University, the College of William and Mary, Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Virginia, and a number of other institutions. Among the many majors they pursue will be business, biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering, English, history, mathematics, performing arts, psychology, and political science. Another half will enter or advance in the workforce in such fields as accounting, administrative support, automotive, computer arts, dental hygiene, electronics technology, information systems, nursing, and web design. The track record of their predecessors indicates that these graduates will be well prepared for educational pursuits at a higher level or for success in their chosen careers—and usually for some combination of the two.
The individual stories of TNCC graduates are quite compelling. A number have successfully balanced academic pursuits with additional commitments to family and employment. Finances and time management have not always been easy. Some have faced challenges related to health and disabilities. These students speak to what motivates them to pursue higher education—the chance to set an example for their children, the pride of being the first in their family to go to college, the prospect of increased earning capacity, the satisfaction of knowing that they are realizing their full potential. They also speak to the benefits that have come their way, sometimes unexpectedly—the attention and support of particular faculty, the advantage of being taught in relatively small classes, the opportunities for service and leadership provided by membership in student organizations, and the discovery of genuine passion for a particular field of study or type of work.
Beyond the tales of individual success is the larger story of a community ensuring that it has the capacity for realizing its social, economic, and cultural future. Degree attainment is increasingly recognized by business, political, and civic leaders as a salient indicator of whether we are prepared for that future. In Virginia, Governor McDonnell and the General Assembly have made 100,000 additional degrees the cornerstone of a combined educational and economic agenda. Thomas Nelson, along with others of Virginia’s Community Colleges, therefore continues to give focused attention to the matter of completion, to not only upping the absolute number of graduates but also the percentage of completers for those who start with us. Community colleges have traditionally placed emphasis on access—getting students through the “open door” to enroll in our classes. We are now putting comparable emphasis on egress—seeing that students find their way in a timely manner to the college exit with a marketable credential that sets them in good stead for further education at a university or a productive career.
As I heard one prominent business leader recently remark, degree attainment tells him two important things about an applicant for a job: (1) that she has demonstrated a capacity to keep learning, an essential quality in today’s workplace; and (2) that she has the determination and capacity to pursue a long-term project to completion. I would add that a degree further indicates that one has acquired the “habits of mind” needed for intelligent engagement with today’s world: the capacity to communicate clearly and thoughtfully in writing and speech (along with the savvy to spot those who don’t); an understanding of the scientific method and the type of knowledge it yields, matched with an appreciation for diverse human cultures and societies; and an ability to do the math as needed while realizing that some things of value defy quantification.
Strike up Pomp and Circumstance!