After Commencement, Life?

By Gwen Gray Schwartz, College Section, Alliance, OH:


Sometimes graduation is not the happy event it’s supposed to be for students, and letting go can be both a relief and a scary proposition for everyone involved. We often talk of the successes and the growth of students, but we don’t always acknowledge the afterlife of students and the aftereffects on us. Some students graduate and have nothing to go home to, no support system to help them in the next phase of their lives.

The thought of what might happen to our most fragile students is frightening. After the commencement ceremony is over, what happens to the student who has no parent left in her life, or the one who has cut ties with all his friends in the midst of a mental health breakdown, or the one just diagnosed with bipolar disorder? What if they find the bridge of their nightmares, the one they’ve written of and researched. What if this end truly brings the end?

While commencement is surely a time to celebrate student success, post-commencement is a time I also feel rather empty. As professors, we take on various roles, and for some students, we teach as well as parent, to differing degrees. The uncertainty of what comes next for students with severe mental health disorders is uncomfortable, and yet, I’m realizing, also a necessary part of letting our students go. The void they leave in the life of a professor can be profound. Without them, here, in my office, spilling their guts and writing about it, all that’s left is a question mark.

So today, the day after our commencement ceremony, my question mark sits with me and makes me uneasy, yet gives me some room to breathe, too. Being honest about the toll that students take on us is perhaps a necessary step toward recognizing that the increasing mental health issues that students bring to campus also means an increased tax on our own mental health—a tax that can’t be measured officially in any of our T&P requirements, but one that often keeps us up at night. These students, the ones who make it, they leave. And we’re left wondering, will they continue to make it? How hard will their roads be? Will the fight for life win out or will they quit? Will they always struggle? I wonder what other professors are doing to fill the void I’m feeling today.