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Family Life

Graduation Should Be an Olympic Event

Marlene Kern Fischer

Will your college student graduate next year? Guess what? The time to start training for next spring's commencement season is NOW.

When my oldest son graduated from college, I wasn't prepared for the grueling nature of the ceremonies and festivities and, afterwards, felt as if I had run a marathon without any training.

If you celebrated a college or graduate school commencement this past year, congratulations both on your student’s achievement (especially remarkable during a pandemic) and to you for surviving it.

If there’s a commencement on the horizon, knowing what to expect may help you optimize enjoyment and avoid stress. Here are my top tips.

Make Reservations ASAP

Having now experienced two college commencements and one law school graduation, I recommend starting to plan a year in advance.

  • Convenient hotels and nice Airbnb's book up fast.
  • If you will fly, plane reservations should be made four to six months in advance; consider paying extra for a flexible ticket. Don't forget to reserve a rental car — rental car shortages have been a real problem in some locations during the pandemic.
  • Make restaurant reservations at least two to three months out.
  • Check the university’s website for information about tickets, rain sites (although I’ve yet to hear of rain plans actually being utilized), and special activities like religious services and academic department receptions.
  • Share all this information with friends and relatives who plan to join you!

Consider Your Group, Local Transportation, the Weather

In addition to travel, crowds and potentially inclement weather, graduations can be challenging in other ways as well. It’s an emotional time for everyone. Your grad will be saying goodbye to friends and a place they've called home for several years. Younger siblings may get bored, older relatives may need help or special accommodations, and moving your group place to place can be difficult.

Make sure you know about cabs, Uber, Lyft and other transportation alternatives to your car (rented or otherwise). Rest up before you go and pack clothes for all types of weather in case that sunny and comfortably warm day you’re imagining doesn’t materialize.

My oldest son attended college in the Midwest. The College Of Arts And Sciences graduation was held on Thursday and the all-university graduation on Friday. Since the ceremonies were outside and the Midwest can get hot in May, they began early each morning. This meant we had to be up and out of our hotel (which was lovely but a little far from campus) at the crack of dawn to beat the traffic, find parking and speed-walk to the first-come-first-served seats.

Thursday morning, we made it to the first ceremony in plenty of time. It got hot and humid quickly but, thoughtfully, the university had provided water bottles at each seat. We baked and sweated through the lengthy processional, speeches and conferring of degrees, but as we watched our son walk across the stage as his name was called, it all felt worth it.

The next morning was déjà vu all over again. A little withered, wearier and less punctual, we returned to the same location and heat to watch the university commencement. Our youngest son, who was eleven, felt it necessary to drink many of the plentiful water bottles the university again provided. Shortly before the conclusion of the ceremony, he announced that he needed to go to the bathroom. I told him that I hadn’t traveled halfway across the country to miss the mortarboard toss. With increasing urgency, he repeated his need to go — so, before the caps had time to return to earth, we sprinted though the crowd and hurdled over chairs to be first in line at the bathroom. Luckily, he made it, but with nary a moment to spare. Another bit of advice: borderline dehydration might be a preferable alternative at graduation.

Fast-forward three years to our son’s law school graduation. This time, I kind of knew what to expect. Reservations were taken care of well in advance and, since he was in DC and we were in NY, we were able to drive. My son even remembered to pick up extra rain tickets, just in case.

I repeat: “just in case.”

The morning of his graduation, it started to pour and the hour-by-hour forecast showed no break in sight. Happy that we had three rain tickets, though unsure who in our group of seven would have to watch on TV at the alternate location, we waited for the announcement that the graduation would be moved indoors.

That announcement never came. His school, in all its legal wisdom, decided to hold the graduation outside. I could not see my son in the procession in the sea of umbrellas. We all got soaked. I hadn’t worn the rain gear I packed because I truly thought there was no way we would be outside. My mother-in-law and her boyfriend sat in the deluge like troopers. We stayed because I wanted my son to know we were there for him and because being there meant so much to us, too. The only consolation was that the roll call of graduates and the actual hand-off of diplomas had been scheduled inside after the main ceremony; half of us bolted for that location before the last speaker was done. We were not alone, as the rows and rows of abandoned seats around us attested to.

A word to the colleges and universities: Yes, it is inconvenient to move the ceremonies if it rains and there may be fewer seats available for family and friends. However, you are not doing anyone a favor or creating idyllic memories by making people suffer, and the fleeing of guests does not make for a good audience or ceremony.

Savor Every Second

On the plane home from that first college graduation, I noticed a guy wearing a university sweatshirt who looked even more tired than I (if that were possible). Beleaguered but happy, we compared notes and he commented that he'd had no idea how exhausting the graduation would be — we commiserated as if we had gone through combat.

But was it worth it? You bet.

One last bit of advice: Rain or shine, wind, hot or cold, savor every second because, despite the inconveniences, graduation day will be one of the best and most memorable of your life.

Marlene Kern Fischer is a wife, mother, food shopper extraordinaire, author and college essay editor. She has published two books: Trapped in My Sports Bra and Other Harrowing Tales and Gained a Daughter but Nearly Lost My Mind: How I Planned a Backyard Wedding During a Pandemic. Find her on Facebook at Thoughts From Aisle 4.
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