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Parents, Grads, and the End of the Commencement Season

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As a college teacher, I have been going to commencements ever since I got my own Ph.D. I still like them after more than a quarter century of attendance, but as this year's commencement season winds down, I've come to realize that what I most look forward are the parents I meet after the speeches and the graduation ceremonies are over.

The meetings are all-too-brief, but they still open windows into the lives of my students that I have not looked through before. With many of my students, I am able to see where they got their values and their inner drive. The care -- and most of all, the time -- their parents have put in to help the students I have been teaching is deeply moving.

Equally significant for me, however, is the knowledge that comes from seeing how many students who didn't get the parental support they needed have still turned out all right. My admiration for what these students have achieved on their own increases by leaps and bounds after I meet their parents.

Above all, in this era of multiple divorces and remarriages, my meetings with parents remind me of how at too-early an age so many of my students became skilled diplomats, figuring out which set of parents to visit on vacations and how to negotiate breakfasts with stepbrothers and stepsisters they barely knew.

As for goodbye tears, they are rarely part of graduation these days. Between e-mail, Twitter, and Facebook, my students don't feel they are leaving anybody behind. They have been keeping in touch online with their parents and their friends daily, and they don't see geography changing that tie.

Much to my surprise, my students also do not fear the world they are entering. The Great Recession, with an unemployment rate of over 17 percent for their age group, doesn't scare them. They assume they will figure out ways to deal with hard times. They just want some leeway to get their bearings. They are not anxious to commit themselves to a specific career, let alone settle down and start families, and they are easy being looked upon as a trial-and-error generation.

By any comparative yardstick, I am the sentimental one at graduation. I will, I know, have a new crop of students to teach next year, but the ones I am losing seem irreplaceable to me, and all the Twitters and e-mails in the world don't feel like adequate compensation for their going.

The hardest fact for me to face is that the students I have come to know over the last four years have been on loan from parents who have paid a staggering price for them to be educated and trusted from the outset that people like me had their sons' and daughters' best interests at heart.

Nicolaus Mills is professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America's Coming of Age as a Superpower. Nmills@sarahlawrence.edu