As a professor, attending graduation ceremonies and parties is always a bittersweet experience for me. Although I am happy for my students’ success, I’m always a little sad to lose them to the “real world.” Don’t get me wrong—I’m happy to see them move on to a professional career or more school, but given all the time and energy we professors spend on students and their dreams, it’s hard to say goodbye.
As I sat through our graduation ceremonies at Penn this year, I loved looking at the faces of the students. Some looked sad, others frightened about what is in front of them, and others were beaming with happiness. Year after year, I get choked up during graduation. The thought of what these young people are going to do with their lives is so exciting and hopeful. Many of them are not even aware of their potential. Imagine the surprise when they discover it. I certainly remember when I discovered mine.
I’m an optimist, and when I looked out at the students, many of whom I had taught and worked closely with, I felt a sense of comfort. Although the current generation is often ridiculed and thought to be apathetic, I see young people who care deeply about the issues that matter to them. Many of them are willing to speak out, albeit not always in the traditional ways that previous generations used. They often use social media and networks to make their point. Others are pursuing careers in teaching and service both here and abroad, and speaking out with their actions.
Today’s students have lived in a world shaped by global events, a world that is much more interconnected than the one in which I came of age. They are more aware of issues that span the globe and many of them are interested in working to make positive change. Just this year, I had students who shared their interest in women’s global philanthropy, working to empower the lives of African-American boys in urban areas, changing the nation’s perceptions of Muslims through education, and leading a college.
Students have big dreams that we should support and feed. As one of our graduation speakers this year stated (quoting Steve Jobs), “we need to leave a dent in the universe.” I like this idea. I hope these students live their lives in a way that leaves a positive impression or “dent” in the universe. They have immense potential if we give them the tools and freedom to approach challenges—both local and global—in new ways.
Congratulations and good luck graduates!