William & Mary Commencement, 2024

On May 17, 2024, I attended Commencement at William & Mary, marking my graduation from the American Studies Program. Let’s reflect on this day of celebration and closure.

Wearing my full regalia before heading to the afternoon’s events. The necklace I’m wearing belonged to my mother. She gave it to me in 2016 after she retired from teaching and before I started researching American Studies programs. Only later I did find out it shared the same colors as William & Mary.

To Attend or Not Attend

During my time in higher education, I have attended three different commencements: one for graduating college in 2008, one for finishing my Master’s in 2010, and this one to celebrate the completion of my doctorate.

William & Mary’s Commencement consists of multiple events over a couple of days. In addition to the main graduation, held in the evening (and kept to 2 hours), different departments have their own, shorter ceremonies, including American Studies. I attended both the AMST event as well as the larger, university-wide graduation.

Initially, I was unsure about attending Commencement. I’d already attended similar events for my other degrees, and I knew from experience that they’re not always the most thrilling of events. Transitioning to full-time work at the Barry Art Museum also meant that I’d become fairly disconnected from campus life. And given our current relocation from Williamsburg to Norfolk, taking a weekend off to wear a cap and gown seemed like an inconvenience.

After I mentioned my reservations to my cohorts though, they talked me into going. I’m so glad they did. Far from an inconvenience, the ceremonies I attended brought some much-needed celebration, reflection, and closure to what has been an important chapter of my life.

A Time for Joy

Of all the commencements I’ve attended, this one was arguably the most joyful, in large part due to the undergraduates. They were delighted to celebrate their achievements together. And it’s understandable why they’d be so excited. These young people were high school seniors when the pandemic cruelly shut down their worlds. They started their college careers on Zoom, and were denied the ceremonial passage to adulthood that is high school graduation. By the time our Commencement arrived, they were more than ready to celebrate their accomplishments in person.

That energy was palpable, and you couldn’t help but get swept up in their joy and excitement. Of all the events I attended Friday, the main Commencement was the one I was initially most hesitant to attend, as I remembered from past experience how long and interminable they can be. By the end of the night though, it had become one of the highlights of an already celebratory day. The students’ ebullience changed my perspective on graduation ceremonies.

Commencement as Community Celebration

Arguably more than any other commencement I’ve experienced, this graduation celebrated the scholarly community surrounding my degree. The institutional qualities unique to doctoral work make the community surrounding it especially important. I spent just under six years completing my degree. That’s a relatively short amount of time for an American PhD in the humanities. But it’s also the total amount I time I spent on my Bachelor’s and Master’s combined. The PhD is also a largely solitary experience after you finish your coursework, so it’s important to develop and maintain social connections.

Attending Commencement and spending the day with my friends, advisors, and mentors reminded me how important all these people have been to my success in the program. Every semester, the members of my incoming class got together to have dinner and catch up on life. I also befriended students who began the program both before and after I started. Meetings with my advisor regularly turned into discussions about our respective families, mental health, and favorite hobbies. All enriched my life not just through their brilliance as researchers and writers, but their warmth and affection as friends, colleagues, and people.

Commencement as Reflection

Commencement was also a time to reflect on the importance of my family and loved ones, especially Brandon. More than anyone, he has maintained my physical, emotional, and mental well-being throughout my time at William & Mary. I may have undertaken the task of writing the dissertation, but Brandon, along with the kitties, supported me the entire way.

Brandon and me. Brandon’s unwavering love and support for me throughout my time at William & Mary was critical to my success and overall experience of the program. He doesn’t like having his picture taken, but I insisted on this one because he’s been by my side throughout this journey.

Having Brandon as a partner made it easier for me to do my work and enriched my life outside of it. I had someone to talk to every night after I finished researching or writing for the day. He did nearly all of the cooking to ensure that I ate more than cereal. We took day-trips to different places to get me out of my head. I patterned my work schedule after his, putting an end to the late nights I spent working during my undergraduate and Master’s days. Brandon’s love and support were especially critical during the pandemic, when I was largely cut off from my William & Mary community. Commencement was about celebrating Brandon’s role in my life as a scholar as well as acknowledging the achievements that came out of that life.

Commencement as Closure

Finally, Commencement has brought a much-needed sense of closure to my PhD. Putting on the doctoral robes and participating in the ceremonies with my fellow graduates instilled a sense of finality to my doctoral experience. Processing the stage helped me acknowledge the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. I hadn’t fully realized how much I needed that closure until I donned the robes, but I’m grateful to have gotten it.

Brandon’s favorite picture of the day. Wherever the future takes us post-PhD, we will get there together.

Commencement has also helped our impending relocation to Norfolk feel more real. It formalized the fact that it’s time to begin the next chapter of our lives together. Brandon and I will switch roles, with him going back to school and me working full-time (more on that in a future post). More than an ending, Commencement signaled the beginning of something new.

Six years ago I decided to leave my job in Roswell to pursue a PhD. Last month, I defended my dissertation. And last week, I formally closed my time at William & Mary in the company of my colleagues, mentors, and family. What a splendid way to end what has overall been an expansive and positive chapter of my life.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *