In 1982, the year I graduated from college with my bachelor’s degree, I didn’t have a job lined up. I had interviewed that spring with a small weekly newspaper in Minnesota, and although I was a finalist for the editor’s job there, I didn’t get it.
Which probably was a blessing. I was engaged to a nursing student from the same college (Marycrest College in Davenport, Iowa) that I was graduating from, and my future and current wife, Audrey, was not impressed by the 16-bed country hospital in Nowhere, Minnesota. She wanted a bigger hospital to get more experience as she started her healthcare career.
But there was a deep national recession going on. Unemployment that year reached levels never seen since the Great Depression. This was before the farm crisis of the mid 1980s, but economic times in the Midwest were not good, and it did not feel like a great year to be launched into the cruel real world—engaged, unemployed, uncertain of my future.
For me, the scary picture turned around quickly. My wife had a job offer from the University of Missouri-Columbia Hospital, and I made an embarrassing attempt to talk myself into a job at the “Columbia Tribune,” where an editor looked down at me and told me he just hired from the giant journalism factory at the local state university.
But, 20 miles away was the small town of Boonville, Missouri, where the “Boonville Daily News” was looking for a sports editor. My part-time job during my senior year in college was as a sports correspondent for the “Quad City Times,” so I had plenty of clips about sports, an activity I had assiduously avoided my entire life. And I got that job, and Audrey started her career at the UMCH and later we both earned graduate degrees from that nearby university.
Class of 2020: This year makes 1982 look mild and tame. The “greatest unemployment rate since the Great Depression” was over 10 percent, but nowhere near the unprecedented economic meltdown we’re experiencing now under COVID-19. There was a Republican president in office in 1982, a Hollywood star many people thought ill-suited for the job—but little did we know the scale of showbiz incompetence our political leadership could descend to during the pandemic of 2020.
In 1982, I at least got to attend my own college graduation on the grassy central campus of Marycrest. You’ll be watching yours from MMU via YouTube.
So, it is difficult to be graduating from college in 2020. But it’s still your day, your life is still ahead of you, and nobody knows the next twists and turns fate has in store for you.
The world is full of challenges, but it always was and always will be. This pandemic is a tragedy that is still unfolding, but it will unfold. It will get better. Of course, in the short term it could get worse before it gets better, but life isn’t only lived in the short term.
As a university professor, honestly, I am bored every year by the commencement ceremony where my part is to put on a ridiculous outfit and sit there as a set piece in a rather formal, repetitive ritual. To amuse myself, and because I think it is a bit of service to Mount Mercy, I shoot and post images of graduation events.
And this year, I miss it. I would give a lot to sit there and be bored during your graduation, just for the joy of gathering to celebrate you. There is a lot that I miss this weekend—the reception after the Honors Convocation when you often get to meet your brightest students’ families, the energy in the gym as new nurses-to-be get their pins, the morning Mass on the day of commencement when singing and flowers bring seniors and their families to joyous tears, seeing the creative ways students decorate their hats before the commencement ceremony, the hugs and goodbyes after commencement that you hope are only temporary.
I miss it all. It saddens me that we can’t be together on this commencement day and this weekend.
But still you commence. The next phase of your life is unfolding.
I wish you the best. And I want you to remember that Dorothy didn’t know how she would get to the Emerald City when she put her first foot on the Yellow Brick Road. You’re deep in a virus-caused evil enchanted forest, and it’s hard to know when you will see the light of day again.
Yet, there will be light. I hope it’s not too far ahead. And I hope that like me, even if you feel inadequate on the day of your commencement, that this day leads to better future days. May it become the start of an educated life well lived.