The Bittersweet Season of Graduation

Higher Education


Higher education, like agriculture, is cyclical, with deeply established rhythms.  The seasons in higher education, however, move upstream. August and September feel like spring. It is a time of rebirth—students return full of hope. November to March feel like, well, November to March: winter, the time to bear down and do the work or, as we call it in Florida, season.

In both the agricultural and educational cycles, April is the cruelest month. On campus, it is not so much about lilacs breeding out of the dead land. Rather, students and their professors are under great stress.  Exams loom and papers are due.  Students fail, or not.  Parties and protests break out.  

May, on the other hand, feels more like fall—it is a beautiful month, but it is bittersweet: one knows it is about leave-taking. For May is about graduation.  

In the Bradenton-Sarasota area, over 3,300 students will receive degrees from local universities, most of them this May. It would be impossible and churlish not to take pleasure in their accomplishments. They’ve worked hard, and many have significant accomplishments. However, just as departure of college-bound, first-year students is hard for parents, graduation is difficult for faculty and staff. We want them to leave. It is time. But it is hard to let go.

About 180 of those students will graduate from New College. These students have spent the last four years exploring what they care most deeply about and trying to knit that together with what they will do in future. They came for an education, and more than 80 percent will seek further education. They sought vocations: things they love, things they are good at and things that will help others.  Some found one or more. Others are still looking. All have completed a substantial piece of work. All have grown and changed.  

This class, like many before, is highly accomplished. Its members have won two Fulbrights, three Gilmans, a Frost (to Oxford), and two French Government scholarships.  Other students have found positions in cutting edge research labs.  Some have taken jobs.   This is the college’s fiftieth graduating class.  But for me, this is my class.  They entered New College at the same time that I did.  And I will miss them.  

Commencement is May 20 at 7:00 p.m. on the Bayfront at New College.  The celebrated journalist and civil rights pioneer, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, will deliver the address.   Help us celebrate them and say goodbye.   All are welcome.  

Higher education’s final season is summer. For faculty, the summer is a period of less teaching and a time for research. It is a time where the workload drops to something approaching a normal 40-hour week. Science faculty will work with students and colleagues in their labs. Humanists and social scientists will hunker down or travel to seek out archives and new research. It is a time to get those papers and books written, to revise syllabi and to prepare new course materials. It is wonderful work, but it can be frustrating and lonely. Summer passes quickly, and the awareness that what is undone will likely have to wait another year, weighs heavily.  

But even now, the anticipation of the arrival of the new class and the new spring begins to swell.

Dr. Donal O'Shea is president of New College of Florida.

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