For many, the decision to participate in one's graduate ceremonies is a clear and easily arrived at "yes." For me, it was a little more complicated, and regrettably, I decided not to walk for my doctoral graduation. In retrospect, I wish I would have made a different choice. I walked for my bachelor's degree at Brigham Young University, gaining the most enjoyment from the "whoo hoos" my normally subdued father shouted out as my name was announced. Wearing the traditional cap and gown and being formally recognized through the traditional pomp and circumstance seemed the right and expected thing to do. And, my family was proud of my accomplishment.
When I earned my master's from Our Lady of the Lake University, I did not participate in the graduation ceremony. Although my master's was a terminal degree, I always planned to pursue a doctoral degree immediately following, so walking in my master's graduation ceremony wasn't important to me at the time.
I completed my dissertation after finishing internship at the University of Notre Dame Counseling Center and after starting a job at the APA. I was already immersed in my psychology career, and making a trip to San Antonio to participate in my doctoral graduation ceremonies was not a priority. What's more, I was also a summer graduate, and ceremonies that year overlapped with the APA Annual Convention where I was presenting. And perhaps most importantly, I wasn't keen on attending graduation because my father had died the year before, and I knew he would not be there to watch the hooding ceremony and to hear "Dr. Carol Williams-Nickelson" for the first time echo throughout the stadium. I would have missed his cheering, too.
I was not very excited about wearing a heavy black robe in the heat and humidity of a San Antonio summer. I had started a new professional life in a new city; I was newly married, and I had new friends and interests. Returning to a former life-even though it was a good life and it would just be for a few days to graduate-seemed like an interruption to me, rather than an opportunity to celebrate. After all, I was already celebrating and enjoying exciting achievements and changes in my life.
Over time, however, I think my decision not to participate in my graduation ceremonies has had some unintended consequences. While I have a lovely framed degree hanging in my office that clearly indicates that I earned a doctoral degree in psychology, I have no anchoring point cognitively for the transition from graduate student to psychologist. In many ways, it sometimes feels as if I slipped through the back door and simply arrived at this new professional status overnight. Some might perceive this as a seamless and humble entry into the profession. But it can also feel illegitimate, although there was nothing illegitimate about all of the honest and hard work and sacrifice I put into earning my degree.
Beyond myself, my decision probably affected those who care about me and would have experienced satisfaction and pride from watching me graduate. My husband, mother and siblings would have derived much pleasure from attending my graduation. Similarly, my nieces, nephews and extended family would have benefited from the role-modeling that would have occurred, perhaps serving as an additional motivator for them to attend and succeed in college and strive to achieve their goals. My professors, supervisors, advisers, mentors, department and dissertation chair probably missed me and the chance to say goodbye. I also missed the chance to recognize and formally thank them for the critical roles they played in my development. I missed an opportunity to celebrate with some of my classmates, even if they were not a part of my cohort. And, the university was deprived of the occasion to show the community that they are producing doctoral graduates that will hopefully make a difference in society as a result of the education they provide.
My advice: think about how the decisions you make related to graduation may impact you and others in the future, as well as now.
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