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

 

Politics have no place in commencement speeches May 21, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:39 AM
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“SO, WHAT DID YOU THINK of the speakers?” I ask my daughter as we walk toward the clock tower on the campus of the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, following commencement ceremonies. She has just graduated with a Spanish degree and I am curious if she shares my opinion of the commencement speeches.

My daughter is at first non-committal, certainly not enthusiastic, but not critical either.

“I felt like we were at a political science pep fest,” I tell her. She quickly agrees.

Between the two speakers—a political science graduate and the Wisconsin Public Service Commissioner, also a former legislator—I’ve heard enough references to politics and a certain UW-L political science professor that those comments overshadow all other content.

Given the context of this celebration, I don’t care who campaigned for President here beginning back with John F. Kennedy. I don’t care which Wisconsin politician was inspired by an instructor here. I don’t care about re-election in Wisconsin, especially since I am a Minnesotan.

It is unfortunate that I feel this way, but I can’t deny my reaction to commencement speeches laced with political references.

At one point during the graduation ceremony, I ponder leaving the stuffy, packed gymnasium in protest. I once walked out on a sermon that particularly needled me and I once failed to return to a theatrical performance. But I realize that exiting this time will serve no purpose except to disappoint my daughter.

Instead, let me offer this suggestion to university commencement organizers and speakers: Please, keep the spotlight on the graduates, all of the graduates. They have worked hard, and paid a lot of money, to earn their degrees whether in education, communications, a foreign language and, yes, even political science, and many other fields of study.

If you wish to recognize retiring faculty or single out individual professors for accolades, then do that at another ceremony. Like the graduates, they deserve their own hour of honor.

Keep even the slightest hint of politics out of the podium.

Commencement should focus solely on the graduates (although that “thank you” to the families was a nice touch) and all that they have accomplished.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling