A couple weeks ago, I was lucky enough to be able to visit my 90-year old grandmother in Cape Cod. She’s truly a force of nature -- she lives alone, survived a massive tree falling on her house this winter without batting an eye, and schedules more weekly social events than I do as a millennial living in the city. Among the incredible life experiences she’s shared with me from her time raising a family and traveling the world, one thing that’s resonated has been her love and pride for her alma mater, the University of California at Berkeley. I was reminded of this as I was coordinating some weekend Commencement livestreams for Apogee partners while at my grandmother’s house. I found myself immersed in a deep conversation with my family about why the word “Commencement” symbolizes a beginning, and defines the ceremony rather than “graduation,” an end. I felt a wave of nostalgia thinking back to my own Commencement and all of the wonderfully terrifying beginnings that came with graduating from college – to a point where I actually found myself switching back and forth between watching the royal wedding on Stream2 and the University of New Hampshire’s 2018 Commencement ceremony. My grandmother even started telling us about the dress she wore on her Commencement Day over sixty-five years ago.
So what, then, does Commencement really represent? For me, it was a culmination of four years of academic rigor and involvement opportunities. I had yet to find out that my leadership positions within the Campus Activities Board, the New Hampshire Outing Club, admissions, orientation, and others would help my career as I worked with students and student affairs professionals. For my ten graduating student ambassadors (sniff!), Commencement means a job in Boston, another two years of graduate school at George Mason, time spent with family, or a path yet to be determined. While I’m sad to lose these incredible students, it’s already been gratifying to interview and hire their replacements, who’ve come with a new crop of incredible content initiatives. Take Lauren and Alex at Pace, for example. We’re losing Rachel, our longtime student ambassador who’s been a part of the OrcaTV team for years and even gave a stellar presentation during our Customer Technology Seminar in Austin. My wrap-up conversation with Rachel was bittersweet and, while of course we’ll stay in touch and I’ve repeatedly told her to reach out if she needs anything, we’ve moved on to a different period in our working relationship. Yet her replacements are already making waves at Pace. Lauren, a commuter student, has been emailing orientation leaders and student organizations at Pace to teach incoming students how they can get involved even before writing their first papers. Alex interviewed friends at Pace asking them how they dealt with stress during finals week, then featured their profiles around campus to cast them as celebrities and hopefully encourage other students to productively deal with finals stress.
For the Campus Life Channel team, 2018’s Commencements have been a wild and gratifying journey. We’ve displayed livestreams of Commencements on multiple channels, displayed heartfelt (approved!) social media posts from students and their supporters, sponsored Snapchat Geofilters, and interviewed graduating seniors before sharing their tips for the incoming class. We’ve heard feedback from our contacts at universities that Apogee has become an extension of their team, and that allowing us to manage campaigns for Commencement has allowed the university to focus on more critical and immediate needs – and, of course, enjoying Commencement! One trend I noticed this year was that Commencement cap decorating has returned with a passion. The Instagram posts I saw using #CapsOffBSC, a Buffalo State Alumni Association Instagram competition hashtag, proclaimed everything from “you can never be overdressed or overeducated” to “24 years later.”
Ultimately, though, what’s sometimes forgotten in the glorious hubbub of Commencement is the doubt and hardship that students overcome to reach this point. The graduates are the success stories, but there’s another conversation that often goes unrecognized on Commencement Day. According to the 2017 National Center for Education Statistics, the 6-year graduation rates for students who began seeking a bachelor’s degree at a 4-year degree-granting institution in fall 2009 was 59 percent. It’s widely understood that this number is lower for first-generation and at-risk students.
As I’ve been researching, visiting campuses to speak with student affairs professionals, and talking with students, I’ve concluded that creating a sense of community is essential to driving student success and ushering students to personalized campus resources. I recently saw webinar data suggesting that first-generation students have the same, or even higher, expectations for themselves when entering college compared to non-first-generation students. The theory around this data is that with a lack of expectation to attend college, first-generation students tend to do more research and consider the decision to attend in more depth before arriving. Then, retention challenges -- including the lack of a social niche including students with similar backgrounds -- detract from success.
My goal is to use Apogee’s solutions, and my experiences working with universities, to support these students. By engaging students through the “cake” content – photos of themselves at move-in, Instagram competitions from multicultural events to drive school spirit, even features of other first-generation students and their tips for peers -- we can encourage engagement with the personalized mentoring programs or inclusion workshops these students need to succeed. Additionally, highlighting the student involvement opportunities students may have with Student Government Association, the Black Student Union, the Commuter Student Association, and the myriad other groups and departments on campus can create the welcoming atmosphere all students need to promote success. I’ve been using feedback from our Student Ambassadors to determine best practices for engaging students. Yet during this exciting time in which campuses celebrate success of graduates, it must be considered that we have an uphill battle ahead. As research is becoming more comprehensive and universities’ strategic plans are prioritizing at-risk students to a higher degree, we’ll have to meet these students in the spaces they’re already occupying. Every student should be able to have the pride in a degree that my grandmother had sixty-five years ago, and that my motivated student ambassadors have been sharing via numerous Instagram posts in 2018.