Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Reflections on commencement from the mom of a postgraduate grad May 16, 2023

An edited computer screen image of students about to graduate Sunday evening from Purdue University. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2023)

“YOU ARE READY and the world needs you….The world needs your energy and talents.” Versions of those statements are likely being repeated by keynote speakers during college commencements across the country. Sunday evening, Kathleen Howell, professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Purdue University, delivered those words to master’s and doctor of philosophy students receiving their diplomas, my son among them.

Purdue’s Boilermaker mascot was on-site for weekend commencement ceremonies. (Photo credit: Randy Helbling)

From hundreds of miles away in southern Minnesota, I watched livestreaming of the lengthy ceremony. My vestibular neuronitis symptoms prevented me from making the long trip to Indiana. But Randy was there, sitting in packed Elliott Hall of Music for hours waiting to see Caleb walk across the stage to accept his master’s diploma.

Purdue’s college president, left, and other staff filled the stage Sunday evening in this computer screen photo. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2023)

As speakers go, Howell did a stellar job of addressing graduates, reflecting on their time at Purdue and the future. And I’m not just saying that. I’ve attended college commencements thrice through the years and have heard some not so good speakers, especially the Wisconsin politician who apparently thought he was at a campaign rally rather than a university graduation.

The rising moon. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

But back to West Lafayette, Indiana, and that speech by Howell. She shaped her address around a quote from President John F. Kennedy’s “moon speech,” quite appropriate given her area of expertise and involvement with the space program. In his talk about space exploration at Rice University in Houston, Texas, in September 1962, JFK said, “We chose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Graduates, families and friends gather pre-commencement at Purdue Sunday evening. (Photo credit: Randy Helbling)

Howell took that quote and expanded, suggesting grads reflect on what they’ve learned and the lessons they’ve learned. How they’ve chosen the things that are hard, pushed through hard times, modified their paths, come out stronger and more resilient. Her words, I expect resonated with many. They did with me as a parent. Howell encouraged the new degree-holders to trust themselves, to always recognize that not everything is accomplished alone. I appreciated her specific acknowledgment of those who supported, continue to support, these new graduates.

All in all, Howell’s keynote address was upbeat, uplifting, encouraging. I never once just wanted her speech to end so the ceremony could proceed. But when it did and doctorate candidates began the process of being “hooded,” I admittedly grew impatient.

Caleb, pre-commencement. (Photo credit: Randy Helbling)

Eventually, Caleb walked across the stage and I found myself overcome with emotion. He’d worked hard, met challenges to reach this point and I felt incredibly proud and grateful and many other feelings rolled into that moment. Howell’s speech caused me to reflect on Caleb as a little boy and his interest in space, not space travel as much as the solar system. He even had a star chart. His star, though, shines not in the skies, but in computer science. Caleb will be among those Purdue students who go on to create technological advancements. He’s already off to a good start with his undergrad accomplishments, independent research and work experience in the years between earning his bachelor’s (from Tufts University) and master’s degrees.

For all those parents who are watching their “kids” graduate, this is your moment, too. As Professor Howell said, none of us can do this alone. Not us. Not these new graduates. And especially not the first men on the moon.

© Copyright 2023 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


20 Responses to “Reflections on commencement from the mom of a postgraduate grad”

  1. beth Says:

    I’m so happy that you had a chance to watch this ceremony that is such a major milestone in your son’s life, seeing all that’s come before, leading him to this moment, and propelling him onward. I can understand your pride in him and your tears for him and what a wondrous day. he will do great things and you and your husband have a huge part in that.

  2. Judith Says:

    How wonderful that you were able to watch Caleb’s ceremony, and that Randy was able to be there, to deliver the hugs for both of you. Who knows what amazing advances will come, thanks to computer technology? You and Randy encouraged Caleb’s exploration of science, so you can be justly proud.

  3. Valerie Says:

    Congratulations to Caleb! A wonderful achievement. I’m glad you were able to view it online.

  4. Bernadette Arlene Thomasy Says:

    Audrey, The commencement at Purdue was a remarkable moment for Caleb and your family. Thanks for sharing it. The speech seemed tailored for you, or you found the messages that reasonated. Happy that Randy was able to be there and you were there, too, via streaming. Hope you continue to heal from the vestibular neuronitis.

    • Yes, that speech did seem tailored for me, just like sermons sometimes feel written for me. I’m thankful Randy could be there, too.

      I have a neurology appointment next week. Hoping for more info, insights and long-term outlook.

  5. Such EXCITEMENT – CONGRATS to Caleb, You and Randy, the other students and those helping those students along to Graduation!!! Thanks so much for sharing this with your readers. Happy Day – ENJOY 🙂

  6. Congratulations Audrey on Caleb’s graduation.

  7. Isn’t the option to livestream commencement ceremonies a gift? Congratulations to Caleb – and to you.

  8. Congratulations to Caleb and to you and Randy as well! It’s quite an accomplishment!

  9. Norma Says:

    Oh Audrey, I know how proud, and happy you are for Caleb. My first born great grandchild Kristi, received her degree from Pepperdine University in Malibu a couple of weeks ago. She will be going to Boston university in the fall for her second step. I was able to attend, and was very impressed with the speeches given there. I nearly froze to death, but it was worth every cold breeze from the Pacific Ocean to witness it. I was lucky to have attended two prior graduations from there for two grandsons in the past. One of them your son-in-law.

    • Norma, how wonderful that you could attend Kristi’s graduation from Pepperdine and Marc’s and Jon Eric’s years ago. Caleb is also moving to Boston, where’s he’s landed a job. It’s a familiar city since he previously attended college and worked there. I think Kristi will like Boston.

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