Thursday, June 10, 2010

Pomp and Circumstance: The Psychology of Graduation

As Graduation season is upon us, I reflect back to my own high school graduation (SF Class of 1988!), more than 20 years ago. The world was much smaller back then. Simpler. The internet was in its infancy. Then the world exploded. Blogging, Facebook, texting, and cell phones. Back then, you still had to go to the library and use the card catalog to find books or to copy articles for that final paper. Now, the world is yours at the press of a button. (If you don't know what a card catalog is - ask your parents!)

Finishing high school is a bittersweet experience for most, the end of carefree days and summers off. Graduates face fears of the unknown as many go off to college, or the reality of the real workforce. Many view graduation as the end of something.

Commencement is so much more. The word itself, commence, means to begin. As much as the graduation is the end of high school, it is also the beginning of something, representing hope and all the future can bring. As you don your cap and gown, an age old tradition, you take part in a ritual that symbolizes a passage into adulthood.

I have had the good fortune of reconnecting with many of my friends and acquaintenaces from high school. It is amazing to see how everyone has changed and what they have accomplished. One classmate is working with the FBI, another has become a funeral director with one of the local funeral homes in our hometown, yet another has become a detective, and one classmate is in prison serving a 10 - 20 year prison sentence for manslaughter. It is almost The Breakfast Club in real life. Many have lost their lives, a stark reminder that it is not to be taken lightly. Most have children of their own now. We have one shot and need to make it count.

I guess the real lesson here is a message I try to pass to adolescents that I see for therapy - After high school, it is an entirely different world. In general, the cliques and groups dissipate, and the social hierarchy of high school seems less important. People are less mean and catty, after all, we are all freshmen again once we hit that college, University or trade school. As we move forward, commence, we take those sometimes brutally difficult lessons from high school, and try to become better humans. Without the peer pressure of high school friends, we try on new identities and allow our inner personality to shine. We gain confidence, competence and the knowledge that we need to become, well, whatever it is we want to pursue. I knew early on (Mr Aluise Psych/Soc class Junior year), that I wanted to become a psychologist. 20 years later I realized my own dream. I hope, that for the Class of 2010, they also find their own happiness. It's not as easy for them. They have new and difficult challenges to face. They have a much more complex and difficult world to take charge of...

For many facing commencement, unique challenges will be faced. First, new graduates may be leaving home for the first time. This can be anxiety producing for both the teen as well as their parents. Developing independence includes both the need to foster skills necessary to take care of oneslf (doing your own laundry, paying bills, cleaning your room without being told). I distinctly recall my father, EVERY time I saw him, saying "Did you check your oil?". In addition to the practical concerns, there are emotional adjustments to be made on both ends as well. Parents need to "let go" and the child needs to "step up". Emotionally, this can be a difficult and painful process.

When I see or speak with former classmates, many of them have changed. In fact, some are unrecognizable from the shy, awkward, skinny kids they once were. As my husband says "Life is the great equalizer". It can be ironic to realize that the most popular kids in high school may have been in their prime during that time, and many other "late bloomers" are still getting ready to shine.

One thing I know for sure: seeing the success of my own graduating class, I have hope for this generation of graduates.

Congratuations Class of 2010!!!

Spring-Ford Senior High School Class of '88 / Immaculata University Psy.D. Class of '07


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