Reflections on the Season of Caps and Gowns

June 1, 2004 | CUNY Matters Columns

Each year at this time my mind turns to the upcoming Commencements across our campuses, and what Commence-ment really means to us at CUNY–collectively and to our more than 32,800 students poised to graduate this year. It is a time filled with hope and promise, marked by a sense of accomplishment and personal pride. It is the long-anticipated outcome of years of hard work, balancing jobs, families, and community obligations with classes and assignments, while overcoming difficult obstacles to forge a path to personal success or a better life.

As I reflect on what a defining moment this is in the lives of our students, I pause over the word “commencement” itself. So often we think of Commencement as an ending, a culmination of achievement after two, four or more years in school. But Webster’s defines commencement thus: not only finishing a course of academic study, but also “to have or make a beginning.” Graduation in turn is defined not only as receiving an academic degree but also as passing “from one stage of experience, proficiency, or prestige to a usually higher one.”

Naturally, then, Commencement at CUNY carries with it not only excitement but also trepidation. What will become of our graduates? What “new beginning” are they embarking upon? For insight, I turn to previous graduating classes and their experiences.

According to one survey of past graduates, 80 percent of associate’s degree recipients and more than 90 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients from CUNY were employed within a year and a half of graduating. Of those employed graduates, 90 percent of associate’s degree holders and 80 percent of bachelor’s degree holders are working right here in New York City. Further, CUNY degree holders working in New York City are likely to be working in the area they were trained in–for example, nearly 72 percent of bachelor’s degree holders work in jobs they specifically trained for at CUNY. Even in today’s economy, half our four-year grads are earning $35,000 or more a year and a half after graduation.

And what are those students doing? We know that through initiatives like the CUNY Big Apple Job Fair alone, our graduates find jobs at companies like MetLife, Bear Stearns, Memorial Sloan-Kettering, and UPS. And looking at two majors as examples bodes well for future grads. In the student survey, 80 percent of students in the health sciences–both associate’s and bachelor’s degree recipients–found a job in their field. The numbers are even higher for earners of a bachelor’s degree in education, over 90 percent. (This leads to particularly satisfying projections for education majors when we consider that this year CUNY education students achieved the highest pass rates ever on their state license exams.)

Of course, not all students immediately pursue employment. Many who commence will continue their education, whether by transferring from a two-year to a four-year program or by going to graduate school. In fact, 50 percent of associate’s degree recipients and 27 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients go on to further education within six months of earning their degrees. The University sends four-year graduates not only to its own excellent Graduate Center but to other fine schools; this year we have students going to Harvard, Columbia University, and the University of Michigan, just to name a few.

As our dedicated faculty know, CUNY has more than its share of truly astounding students. Considering that most of them reach the dais on Commencement Day in the face of great odds–immigration complications, language barriers, financial difficulties, long hours at day and/or night jobs, parental responsibilities–it is nearly impossible to choose from the many stories we have to tell. I could fill pages with inspiring stories of fabulous grads, and I encourage you to watch for the Summer issue of CUNY Matters, with its annual feature on some of the most remarkable members of the Class of 2004. All their stories point not only to how hard they have worked but what promise they hold.

In keeping with that promise, I will refer to the Greek philosopher Plato to point us in the right direction for thinking about Commencement. In The Republic, he wrote, “The direction in which education starts a man, will determine his future life.” I take this to mean that education sets a person on a path of future learning, opening doors for them–literally and imaginatively. I believe that is doubly true of the men and women graduating from CUNY, who have truly “made their beginning” and determined their future.

Twenty years from now, many CUNY grads won’t necessarily find themselves in the place they imagined on this Commencement Day. But they will find themselves in a good place nonetheless, with the skills, talent, and imagination it takes to press even further forward. In the lifelong pursuit that is education, I wish all of our upcoming graduates the best of luck on a fantastic new start.