Keeping Them Out of the Ditch

I forget sometimes how intimidating the commencement ceremony can be for our graduating seniors. I do my best to help them relax and enjoy the experience. Before the ceremony begins I join them when they are all lined-up for the processional to offer a few reassuring comments and hopefully generate a few laughs. This year I told them as they walk across the stage to receive their diplomas, my job was to “keep them out of the ditch.” My guess is that prior to donning the cap and gown, most do not think of this event as a big deal – until they each stand opposite of me on stage and one-by-one their names are announced.

Each encounter with a graduate in that brief moment is unique. I tell them in advance if they are uncomfortable to look me in the eye and I will guide them through. I also typically say something encouraging as they approach me to help them focus on the task at hand. For some this is important advice as I often see wide eyes watering and feel a sweaty palm grasping for mine. Others relish the moment in the spotlight so much that they nearly forget to receive the diploma.

You would think that walking about 30 feet is a simple task, but admittedly there is a bit of sensory overload for those not accustomed to standing alone in a very public setting. The regalia is unfamiliar. Is my hood slipping? What if my cap falls off? The stage area is crowded with people and props. Where is the photographer? Where do I look? The whole thing is over in about 10 seconds. What if my heel catches in the carpeting and I take a header off the platform? Each journey across the platform is unique, as is the much longer journey that brought our graduate to the stage.

On the day our first-year students arrive on campus in the late summer, I stand in front of them at a very different ceremony we call, “Passing of the Class.” My job during that ceremony is to formally receive the class, welcome them, and charge them with the task ahead. I know they hear almost nothing I say. So I try to keep it very upbeat and simple. They are filled with expectations as they arrive, but most of their expectations at the beginning will be surpassed by the reality of the experience they will reflect on in the end. Our job as an academic community along the way is to help them stay out of the ditch.

The “passing of the class” and our commencement exercises are both emotional moments for me. Students in these settings stand at a threshold of new experiences, not knowing exactly what lies ahead. As they pass through the college years, they are shaped and reshaped by the experience itself; ambitions morph as talents are discovered and tested; pathways diverge as the realities of life emerge. Emotion wells up as I am reminded that the journey through college and the journey through life will yield opportunities never imagined, challenges never anticipated, successes beyond expectations, and failures beyond belief. The privilege of being educators is through the college years we can help to provide perspective for interpreting opportunity and success, as well as encouragement through times of challenge and failure. The genius of an academic community is that we serve as a living laboratory for the human learning experience as the years of adolescence give way to the years of adulthood.

As a society we share a responsibility for the generations that follow us. Yet, the focused energy devoted to college students dissipates into the vast ocean of life experience. There are no deans to prepare and guide. The time and energy professors invest is no longer near at hand. Coaches and music ensemble directors are gradually less present. To be sure, many graduates find lifelong friendships with those on campus that extend long into the future. However, these can only serve to a limited extent, as time and distance thin the lines of communication and connection. Our society, therefore, must take seriously the role and responsibility to keep coming generations out of the ditch. If we invest in each other, we will all benefit from a life experience that is fundamentally relational, not simply transactional.

We have so many ways to contribute. I would wish for each of our graduates this year that mentors will appear as if by magic to extend the learning necessary as they advance through the life stages of career and family. Our opportunities to mentor are ample, but the test is in our willingness to step forward and play a productive role. The responsibility is ours to make mentoring a priority in our lives. 

Members of our extended families need to know that we can be available to help. If the voice and experience of a parent is not effective, sometimes an aunt or uncle can offer a useful word or insight. Neighbors and family friends are a rich resource if only to share personal experiences that can inform the journey of another. Professionals can agree to accept requests for informational interviews sought by young adults eager to understand more about a potential career pathway. Communities of faith are a deep reservoir of experience to be shared.

Our task is not to be overbearing and prescriptive. The thing our coming generations need most are people who can help them formulate great questions, not attempt to provide simple answers. I have found after many years in higher education that our younger colleagues need conversation partners more than they need advice. They benefit most when we help them understand how we think rather than telling them how they should think. We have a great opportunity to simply share a bit of ourselves. That alone will keep many out of the ditch.

About the Author

Mark Putnam

I'm the lucky individual who carries the title, 21st president of Central College in Pella, Iowa. My wife Tammy and I have two beautiful daughters, Emma and Greta. Passionate about higher education and the issues facing it and the world today, I hope to invoke an engaging conversation with all who are ready to dig in, make a difference and build for the future. Share your thoughts. I'm listening and interested.



3 responses to Keeping Them Out of the Ditch


Some people might be tired of my comments, often the first in a response to Mark’s blogs. However, I would like to underscore the wisdom of this blog, that we all have a need to share personal experiences, and further that we all yearn for interesting, simple conversations with those we care for. This I can tell you from my experience having lost my wife a few years ago. Not only were we both in academe; we worked side by side for over 40 years at Central, and that was too brief to afford us as much conversation time as might have been desired.
I can also guarantee the fact that accompanying former students on their life’s journey, professional or personal, is among the most genuinely pleasant experiences one can have, whether a major in one’s field or merely a person one connected with in the life of the mind.
I would not have imagined this if I had not experienced it. Prepared for a career in research, I was convinced that results of my research would be my prime satisfaction, but while these were/are more or less expected to occur, I did not anticipate the value of sharing personal experiences and conversations as one’s students or colleagues mature and wish to share with their mentors/colleagues the thrill of their
discoveries with one who cares.
This is also true of one’s experiences with colleagues in other cultures, such as those encountered in study abroad programs. Never underestimate the power of like minds as we all continue our journey.

jeanbos says:

Thank you Mark! I found your message to be very inspiring. I have a daughter/grand-daughter at Central and soon to have her twin at Central this fall as well. I have sent your message to them. I’m excited for them to start their Junior year at Central and look forward to continued growth as they learn and are exposed to possitive learning experiences.

don huffman says:

Jeanbos and Mark,
Despite the inspiring message I’m afraid that we’ve left this blog “in the ditch.” Must be that summer is finally here and all have let down and slid a bit into the ditch.