Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

When a Minnesota mom attends her son’s East Coast college graduation June 3, 2016

A Tufts University graduate decorated her graduation hat.

A uniquely decorated graduation hat at Tufts University 2016 commencement.

I’VE ATTENDED THREE COLLEGE graduations now, for each of my three children, with eight years separating the first and final commencements.

The tented area in the background served as the stage during the all-school commencement ceremony.

The tented area in the background served as the stage during the all-school commencement ceremony at Tufts.

The daughters’ ceremonies were held in gyms at public universities in Minnesota and Wisconsin. I don’t recall much about either other than the Wisconsin politician who used his commencement speech as a campaign platform. I was deeply disappointed, even angry. This wasn’t supposed to be about him, but rather about the graduates.

Congratulatory balloons floated among spectators.

Congratulatory balloons float among spectators.

So when alum and Emmy-award winning actor Hank Azaria was slated to deliver the all-school commencement speech at my son’s May 22 graduation from Tufts University in greater Boston, I was wary. I had no idea who he was, which is no surprise given I am unaware of most Hollywood celebrities. When I learned that Azaria voiced many of The Simpsons characters, I was delighted. My son is a big fan of The Simpsons.

A snapshot of the crowd before the all-school commencement began.

A snapshot of the crowd before the all-school commencement begins.

To my relief, Azaria gave a humorous speech with the simple message that graduates should be honest with themselves and trust their instincts.

The second phase of graduation moved us nearer the stage and to the ceremony for The School of Engineering.

The second phase of graduation moved us nearer the stage and to the ceremony for The School of Engineering.

He voiced several characters from The Simpsons, providing much needed laughter in a morning with an abundance of drawn-out pomp and circumstance.

I caught this dad napping at The School of Engineering commencement ceremony.

I caught this dad napping at The School of Engineering commencement ceremony.

Role-playing Moe the bartender, Azaria said, “I didn’t have a high-falutin’ education. I went to BU.” The audience roared at the comparison between Tufts and Boston University. I understood, feeling a bit like a country hick myself amidst the obvious wealth of many Tufts families.  I am keenly aware that my son, too, felt at times out-of-place on this East Coast campus as a Minnesota boy from a lower middle class family.

Lots of photos were taken at the ceremony and of Tufts' mascot Jumbo, in the background here.

Lots of photos were taken at the ceremony and of Tufts’ mascot, Jumbo, in the background here.

Laughter also erupted when Azaria mimicked the Indian-American owner of the Kwik-E-Mart (from The Simpsons): “We both worship an elephant.” Tufts’ mascot is Jumbo the elephant. P.T. Barnum was an early benefactor of the university.

Tufts police and EMS stood ready near the main commencement stage. Just weeks prior to commencement, a car was torched on campus and a bomb threat discovered.

Tufts police and EMS stand ready near the main commencement stage. Just weeks prior to graduation day, a car was torched on campus and a bomb threat discovered.

Light-hearted moments were welcome among the formal protocol, which began at 9 a.m. and extended well into the afternoon. Thousands gathered on the campus green for, first, the all-school commencement ceremony, and afterward for individual school commencements.

A father photographs the

A father photographs The School of Engineering commencement ceremony. That’s a side profile of Jumbo the elephant in the background.

My husband and I were sitting so far back from the stage that we could see little. I used my camera’s telephoto lens as binoculars several times.

Thousands of chairs covered the campus green for commencement. The event went on, rain or shine. Rain drizzled briefly.

Thousands of chairs cover the campus green for commencement. We sat in this side wing area near the back. Apparently you need to arrive really early to get a good seat.  The event went on, rain or shine. Rain drizzled briefly.

I was thankful events were held outdoors on the beautiful university green rather than inside some stuffy auditorium. Tufts’ Medford/Somerville campus sits atop a hill with a picturesque view of the Boston skyline. Campus buildings are aged and solid, trademark visuals of a long-established and respected educational institution.

Flowers and balloons await graduates.

Flowers and balloons await graduates.

Visiting Tufts for the first time on graduation weekend was an experience, an opportunity to see this place our son has called home for three years. Many other families traveled, too, from across the country and across the world to watch their sons and daughters graduate. We shared that commonality. Maybe not of financial wealth, or lack thereof. But of parents celebrating.

BONUS PHOTOS:

After the two commencement ceremonies, we were finally able to eat a picnic lunch--salad, strawberries and a bar--on a grassy hillside.

After the two commencement ceremonies, we were finally able to eat a complimentary picnic lunch–salad, strawberries and a bar–on a grassy hillside. Everything was recycled.

Vendors hawked flowers before and after commencement ceremonies.

Vendors hawked flowers before and after commencement ceremonies.

Beautiful flowers for a graduate.

Beautiful flowers for a graduate.

FYI: Check back next week for a tour of the Tufts campus.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling