The third Saturday in May is one of my favorite days of the year: Commencement at Northern Essex Community College.
Most years, that third Saturday finds me on a stage under an enormous tent with a couple dozen robed dignitaries looking out at a sea of hundreds of graduating students and thousands of their family, friends, and loved ones.
Oh, and a Scottish bagpipe band.
Last year, like most colleges and universities around the country, we abandoned all of this wonderful pomp and circumstance, distributed diplomas in a “drive by” operation in the parking lots of our two campuses, and held a virtual commencement with prerecorded speeches and awards.
Like a lot of life’s pandemic adaptations over the past year (remote classes, Facebook Pilates, and Zoom happy hours, for example), it was a magnificent effort and better than nothing, but it also left us longing for the real thing.
So, this third Saturday of May in 2021, we were determined to reassemble for some kind of in-person commencement and give our grads the celebration they deserved.
Thousands of people gathered shoulder-to-shoulder was definitely out, so we opted for a big tent with small crowds, and held five shorter ceremonies, one for each of our campus academic centers: Business and Accounting, Professional Studies, Liberal Arts, STEM, and Health Professions.
In addition to the Class of 2021, we invited last year’s Class of 2020, who picked up their diplomas in the parking lot, to come back and join us under the tent.
Everyone was COVID screened upon arrival and wore masks. Graduates were seated three feet apart, and friends and family were seated in pods, each six feet apart.
The platform party, ordinarily overflowing with jubilant trustees, college leaders, elected officials, and a gaggle of guest speakers, was limited to six people for each ceremony.
The lectern and microphone were thoroughly sanitized in between each speaker.
The audience chairs were all wiped down between each ceremony.
We had it all figured out except one thing: The handshake.
I love shaking hands with each graduate as I present them their diploma and congratulate them on their accomplishment.
A few years back, I even wrote “Shake on It,” for Inside Higher Ed, my observations about the wild range of graduate handshakes I experienced while doling out those diplomas.
But even though infection rates are dropping and vaccination rates are climbing (Massachusetts is now considered the third safest state in the nation); and the Centers for Disease Control this week relaxed their guidelines for mask wearing, shaking hands with hundreds of people was still definitely a no-go.
So instead, we improvised and gave our grads options. After all, this was their celebration—shouldn’t they get to choose how they are congratulated?
In specially created gift bags provided to each grad, we gave them foam hands letting them know we think “NECC GRADS ARE #1!”
And in my instructions to each commencing class, I let them know that when they crossed the stage to receive their diploma, they could choose to:
By the end of the day, the “High Fives” had definitely proven to be the most popular among our grads, followed by a handful of “Waves,” a smattering of decorous “Elbow Bumps,” and a couple of tentative “Toe Taps.”
Somewhere along the way, we may have invented a new line dance (meant to be swayed to the smooth, uplifting sound of Des’ree’s “You Gotta Be” or maybe bounced to the rhythm of the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling.”)
In its “History of the Handshake,” the sleuthing scholars at the History Channel note that the earliest example we know about was in the 9th century B.C. between the Assyrian King Shalmaneser III and a Babylonian ruler, and that early handshakers may have been demonstrating peaceful intentions (and showing they had no weapons up their sleeves).
After three-thousand years, maybe the handshake has run its course anyway, and COVID-19 just helped ease it deeper into the history books.
I’m not sure which of today’s more socially-distanced gestures, if any, may take its place, but I’m pretty sure that everyone under that tent today, however they chose to greet each other and congratulate the grads, was happy to be celebrating together again.
One Big, Beautiful Family
Every graduation ceremony is special, but community college commencements are the best.
Every student crossing that stage has an amazing story to tell.
This year, for example, our youngest graduates were 17, and our oldest was 76.
Those young grads were Sabine and Violette Smith, 17-year-old identical twins from Groveland who not only graduated from Pentucket High School a year early, but also earned high honors in their Liberal Arts degrees from Northern Essex Community College, thanks to our dual enrollment program.
And our senior scholar this year was Ted Gaiero, who originally enrolled at Northern Essex in 1962 as a member of the college’s second class. When it came time to graduate in the spring of 1964, he didn’t have quite enough credits for his Associate’s degree. He ended up transferring to Suffolk University that fall, but always regretted not graduating from Northern Essex.
Ted eventually earned his bachelor’s degree in history from Suffolk in 1972, after being drafted and serving in Vietnam.
He retired a few years back from a successful career in sales and a second career working as a paraprofessional in the Haverhill School System, but kept thinking about the associate degree that he never got. Two years ago, in 2019 in my office, I handed Ted his associate’s degree and invited him to come to our 2020 graduation—which of course did not happen in person last year.
So, 59 YEARS, a war, two careers, and a global pandemic after he took his first class at NECC, Ted Gaiero walked across the stage today to receive his associate’s degree.
See? Community college commencements are the best.
In a special message recorded for today’s NECC Classes of 2020 and 2021, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren provided a short and powerful tribute to community colleges and our amazing students:
In her comments, Senator Warren movingly noted that, “Community colleges are like big, beautiful families!”
Indeed, we are.
We can be loud and boisterous, and a bit challenging or even wacky at times; though mostly we care deeply for each other and want everyone in the “family” to be healthy, happy, and successful.
Senator Warren also recognized what a challenging year it has been, and offered that, “We can all use a little more care. No matter where your path takes you, bring the care that you experienced here at NECC along with you.”
Congratulations to Northern Essex Community College’s Class of 2020 and 2021, and to all of the grads everywhere in this remarkable year.
I hope you have felt the care your college offers as one big, beautiful family, and that you bring it along with you out into the world in the days and years ahead.