05/21/2013 06:40 pm ET Updated Jul 21, 2013

The Commencement Roller Coaster

Every year in mid-May, I ask myself the same question, "How did I not see this coming?"


For the past few weeks I've been a sharing a car on the emotional roller-coaster ride with several graduating seniors -- students to whom I feel a special attachment. Many have "bucket lists" full of pre-graduation goals and activities. Others are retracing their steps on a sentimental journey through their college years. Laughter, tall tales, embarrassing moments, triumphs, defeats and tears. Lots of happy and sad tears. I know some of their stories well, and have spent the better part of our time together watching them struggle with mistakes, bounce back, grow up, and flourish.

The most authentic aspect of a liberal arts college is the people. Nearly 20 years ago, the wisest dean for whom I've ever worked told me, "A small college governs by relationship." This has guided my approach to advising students, collaborating with faculty and teaming with colleagues. Some of the best outcomes we've achieved are the products of shared decision-making, honest and clear communication, and student involvement every step of the way. You will not transform the intellectual or social culture of a small college campus unless the students are invested and involved.

Which brings me back to commencement. It's the metaphorical peak of our work with college students. They climb to the summit, and ... disappear on the other side. We walk with them for part of the trek, often suggesting a different path or even a "time out" for rest and recovery. A few are guided back to base camp for additional tools and supplies. Some of the strongest climbers to reach the peak are individuals who took a break when needed and returned to the ascent healthier, stronger, and more determined. They know who they are and I could not be more proud of their accomplishments. And I will sleep easier this summer -- so will they!

While enjoying dinner with a lively group of seniors last week -- all possessing impressive bucket lists -- I commented that they are once again living in two worlds. Much like their young first-year selves, their attention is divided -- each has one foot in college and one foot leading toward the next big adventure. The next climb. We joked that I am like a Sherpa -- students come and go (up and down the mountain) but I stick around and get ready for the next group. We have become friends and they are leaving.

Happy and sad tears.

Congratulations to the Class of 2013 college graduates everywhere, but especially the lucky Class of '13 at Colgate University. Steady on. Keep climbing.