I am so honored to be asked to speak to y’all today.
But, to be honest, I’m kind of an ironic choice for a college graduation speech. Yes, I study higher education — or, what’s known by researchers as “college access and success.” But my own college experience felt like anything but “success.”
This is address was given by Associate Professor of Education Mara Tieken on May 26, 2018, during the annual Baccalaureate Service. The Baccalaureate speaker is chosen by the senior class.
I attended a school much like yours: It is a small, selective, private liberal arts college in northern New England. I arrived with high hopes; college, after all, is supposed to be a one-way ticket to adulthood, to a good job, to happiness and security and meaning. For me, though, it was none of those things.
My first year was tough. I was far from home and miserably homesick, yet I knew I couldn’t go back. I hated my own pre-orientation wilderness trip. It seemed like everyone else already knew one another, and four days without a shower was about three days too many. Campus wasn’t much better. Two feet of dirty laundry covered our dorm room floor, and it was often hard to find someone to sit with at dinner. I spent my time studying for biology tests that I’d go on to fail and trying to find a sport I was good at or a club I enjoyed. By the end of my first year, the only thing I knew for certain was that I would not be pre-med.
The more time I spent in college, the bigger and more complicated the world seemed to grow.
Over the next three years, I wandered from major to major; I landed in psychology only because I ran out of time to drop it and move on to something else. My jobs and extracurricular pursuits were just as varied; I sold fruit at a farmstand, I did snake demos for a local museum, I took a drawing class. The more time I spent in college, the bigger and more complicated the world seemed to grow—and the less sure I was about my place in it.
Junior year, after more than a few anxious phone calls from my parents, I identified something of a career path. I would get my teaching certificate, and I would spend my senior year doing my teaching practicum at a local school. This came as a complete shock to my family: I hated public speaking, my own K-12 experience wasn’t the happiest, and my dad was still holding out for engineering. But after taking one education course, it seemed to me as if a life in education would be interesting and urgent and necessary — and, besides, I just needed a plan.
How was it that my college classmates and I could have so much while my students could have so little?
I began my practicum teaching in a poor rural community about 45 minutes from campus. I quickly discovered that while my fifth-graders were smart, hardworking, and deserving, there are winners and losers in the struggle for educational resources, and somehow, they were on the losing end.
And I, it turned out, was making out pretty well. So while my fifth-graders often came to school hungry, back on campus I had five dining halls where I could eat as much as I wanted. While this elementary school couldn’t afford computers in its classrooms, back on campus there were more computers than students, all with free printing and free software and free maintenance. While the school’s PTO would hold bake sales to purchase more books, back on campus I had access to a nine-story library, well-known for its ample collection and for the privacy and seclusion of its many aisles, which students often used for pursuits more recreational than academic.
How was it, I wondered, that my college classmates and I could have so much — more, in fact, than we would ever need — while my students could have so little? How was it that this college had so many books and supplies and staff and buildings, while this tiny rural school couldn’t give all of its students pencils? It’s not like they’d get the opportunity for this kind of college education later; without basic resources, my students would not have the academic preparation they’d need to get them to college. This wasn’t fair — and I was going to do something about it. I was going to be a teacher.
By the time I was sitting where you are today, I had a major I knew I wouldn’t use.
But the problem was, I was a pretty bad teacher. Perhaps this was most clear on my first day of teaching alone, without the assistance of my mentor teacher. The day ended when my math lesson dissolved into student-led rebellion, counting blocks began flying across the classroom, a student went missing, and someone called the principal.
We found the missing student handcuffed to a tree outside — it’s still not clear to me why he had handcuffs, but apparently he would rather chain himself to a tree than suffer another minute in my classroom. Teaching was hard, it turned out, and just because I liked kids and went to a good college and wanted to teach didn’t mean I was any good at it. I had a lot more to learn.
So, by the time I was sitting where you are today, I had a major I knew I wouldn’t use. I had an understanding that the field that I wanted to go into — education — had some major inequalities. I had remarkably few ideas for what to do about those inequalities. And I had a growing fear that my teaching could actually make things worse. In short, I would leave college with more questions, more doubt, and more uncertainty than I had when I arrived.
But maybe none of this rings true for you. You are, after all, the Bates Class of 2018, and, after spending four years with you, I know that you are a talented, brilliant group. You have many reasons to be proud.
You entered Bates in the fall of 2014. You trickled in: some arrived early for team training and long hours in the weight room, others came for AESOP and days of mountains and kayaks and campfires. Finally, you were all here on campus, spending your first night together. September was a blur: dinners with your JAs, the scramble for classes, the occasional less-than-informed conversation about your common read, The Remedy.
You survived your first winter, with its apocalyptic snows, and you witnessed your first Puddle Jump, questioning, perhaps, the good sense of Bates’ older students. After a beautiful Short Term and a blur of a summer, you were back again, and now you were thinking about a major and maybe getting settled into a club or a campus job or fieldwork in Lewiston. And then it was junior year, and many of you were gone — scattered in universities and communities across the globe — and others stayed on campus, digging deeper into interests and commitments right here, at a place that was, maybe, starting to feel a bit like home.
And then, suddenly, it was senior year, a year of projects and capstones and long hours in the library, in the lab, in the field. Time with friends and classmates felt a bit sweeter, maybe a little more precious, because now, it was clear, this time was limited. You knew that soon, you’d be sitting right here.
Maybe my story — my college experience of questioning, of floundering, of indecision — rings true.
Now you have four years of memories. You’ll remember binding your thesis and practicing for Sankofa and climbing Mount David to watch the sunrise. You’ll remember paint parties on the Library Quad and late nights in the Den during finals week and the hammocks that hang like cocoons across campus on the first warm day. And you’ll remember people: classmates and professors, deans and teammates, Commons staff and friends.
And maybe your Bates experience is just this neat, filled only with these kinds of memories and, of course, your many, many accomplishments; that list truly was impressive.
Or, maybe my story — my college experience of questioning, of floundering, of indecision — rings true, at least in part. I’ve heard about a few tests that were failed, classes that were slept through, deadlines that were missed. Maybe you didn’t get the part, or you were cut from the team. Maybe you, too, jumped from major to major, and your transcript now shows no discernible pattern of anything. Maybe you’re still questioning what you want to do; maybe there is no post-graduation plan. Maybe you’re feeling a little caught between places right now, no longer so sure where “home” is. Maybe college was a bit harder and more uncomfortable than everyone makes it out to be.
Seventeen years ago, I was right where you are today, perched on the eve of graduation, trying to make sense of college. I didn’t understand it then, and, even now, as someone who studies higher education, I still don’t fully understand college, our complicated experiences of it, and the benefits and costs it carries. And, if the many, many, many weeks it took me to write these words is any indication, I really don’t get it.
This skill — the ability to live with uncertainty — has served me better than any other skill I developed in college.
But I do know this.
During college, I learned how to make mistakes. I learned how to listen, and I learned how to learn from others, including the handcuff kid — Cody — who taught me how to be a more responsive, more aware, more caring teacher. I learned how to love questions, how to know what I didn’t know, how to ask for help, how to live with uncertainty. And it is this skill — the ability to live with uncertainty — that has served me better than any other skill I developed in college. Because the uncertainties keep on coming. They come as you try to build a home and a family and a community, they come as you try to support yourself and those you love, they come as you try to figure out your values and how to live them.
And here’s the other thing I learned: I learned that an elite college education — even one that was sometimes uncomfortable and spotted with failure — is an extraordinary privilege. It brings resources and opportunities: books, computers, labs, travel. It confers long-term advantages: better jobs, higher salaries, better health, improved civic engagement. And it means benefits it probably shouldn’t: I was hired into my first teaching position without an interview, solely on the college name at the top of my transcript. This is what privilege looks like.
You are members of an elite group. For every 100 ninth-graders, only 20 will graduate on time and earn a bachelor’s degree within six years’ time, and only the smallest fraction of these degrees will be from highly selective schools.
And this college pipeline is raced, classed, and placed in all sorts of ways: students of color, poor students, and rural students are much less likely to enjoy these opportunities than white students, wealthier students, and suburban and urban students.
I think that we talk about college all wrong.
We live in a very unequal world, and I was reminded of this every day of my teaching practicum and every day of teaching since then. A relative few have access to the kind of educational opportunity that you and I lucked into, and so this privilege brings with it responsibility…and, for me, this meant a responsibility to ensure that my students have the same kind of opportunities I had.
I think that we talk about college all wrong. We suggest that college is about certainty, about answers, about figuring it all out. We suggest that, tomorrow, you will step off that stage into adulthood, a fully formed, confident, knowledgeable adult.
That’s a lie. College is more about questions than answers, more about confusion than certainty, more about the mistakes than the successes. And, honestly, things don’t get much clearer after college; we’re all just muddling through, trying to figure things out, learning as we go. But, hopefully, Bates prepared you well for this. We taught you to chase the questions and run headlong into challenge, and you have — in the studio, in the lab, in the community.
Just because you don’t have it all figured out doesn’t let you off the hook.
So don’t worry too much if you haven’t found the right job, figured out the next step, or decided what you want to be when you grow up — and, if you think you have, be ready to change your mind. If you do what you’ve been doing — staying curious, exploring, asking questions — you’ll be fine. Your education is not finished.
But just because you don’t have it all figured out doesn’t let you off the hook; you have a responsibility. Because here’s the other problem with how we talk about college. We talk about it as if it’s an individual commodity, a resource for you, and you alone, to use and to enjoy. But education is a public good — a society’s obligation and a society’s resource. And you, too, are the recipient of an extraordinary amount of educational privilege. No matter your path to Bates, you are now one of the lucky winners of the educational lottery — and so you have a responsibility to use this privilege not just for yourself, but for others, too.
Some of you are well-aware of this privilege, and you’ve already been struggling with how to think about it and what to do with it; for others, this awareness is new.
And I can’t tell you how to use this privilege or what, for you, this responsibility will mean. That’s your question — your uncertainty — to wrestle with. And I know you will; you’ve already started.
So yes, college brings complexity and responsibility, questions and commitments. And that is exactly why it is such fantastic preparation for the rest of life.
Thank you. Class of 2018, I will miss you.