Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Graduation: Last Day of Class

Welcome back everyone, and thank you for your patience. I said I’d try to get the final posts for graduation up by June and it is now halfway through August. But a lot has happened over the summer, there were some things I wasn’t ready to write about then that I am now, and the story is the richer for it. Some come join me now for the exciting conclusion (at least it was exciting to me).
A note about navigation before we begin. There will be a total of 10 posts, 9 of them with ‘Graduation’ in the title. The easiest way to read through them all will be to use the Previous Posts section on the right hand side of the blog, below my Profile and the links list. I’ve arranged them in descending order instead of chronological order, so you’ll want to begin with the post at the top (this post) and proceed down the list to the last post called ‘Graduation: Finale’.
Given that it’s August now, I don’t remember the last day of classes very well, but I remember it enough. It was Monday August 30, I had three classes: Chinese, Urban Economics, and Asian Art Humanities. I went to Chinese in the morning for our final oral presentation, which went easily for me since I’d spent a good deal of time memorizing my presentation. Chinese was a funny class in that I never enjoyed it as much as most of the other students in the class did, although I did learn an awful lot, and not just about Chinese. In spite of having a large class, we finished early and our teacher Ma Ningwei (Ni3 hao3 Ma3 Lao3shi1!!) let us go early, which was rare. The feeling that school was truly over began when I walked out the doors of Kent Hall.Urban Economics was very laidback for the last lecture, and again the class let out early. I was pleased that the class applauded our professor, something I think very important and respectful to do. (We applauded Ma Laoshi too, even though this is not something that is commonly done in classes in China. She was a little embarrassed, which was great) And if I remember correctly, the last day of Asian Art Hum I skipped, just because I could. It was a beautiful day outside; they were already beginning to put up the tents and the bleachers for the graduation ceremony, even though grad wouldn’t be for more than two weeks yet. But it was a very good day, and it was the beginning of what I felt then and see now were many good days to come.

Graduation: World Premiere of 'The Crown'

During finals week, the first final I had was for my literature class, which was my favorite class that I took there at Columbia. I’ve talked about them before, but that group of people I became closer to than almost anyone else during my time there. For our final paper in that class, Prof. Muller had encouraged us to do something creative and outside the box if we liked, so I chose to write a play. During this literature class I came in contact with what became my favorite book, Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’. Since I have a whole post about that book, I won’t rehash it again here. I knew I wanted to use that book, and I knew that my other favorite book for that semester had been Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’. My play, ‘The Crown’, is an imaginary conversation between Raskolnikov, the main character of C&P, and King Lear.After reading it, it was Prof. Muller who suggested we get the class together and stage a reading of the play. (When she was talking to the class about the idea, she said after reading the play that it was “damn good”, which is very high praise from someone who is as well read as herself. It also meant a lot to me.) I thought the idea was a little silly at first but to my surprise people were genuinely enthusiastic about it, and we got almost the entire class together.Reading through it as a class, with my classmates and my friends was really graduation for me. We met up over at Talia’s place, which was near the campus, had wine and crackers, and did a reading of the play together. In this picture are (from upper left moving down & around) Justin reading the part of Watchman #1, myself reading Lear, Liz reading Raskolnikov, Prof. Jill Muller reading Razumikhin and who unfortunately is hiding behind Benjamin Muller’s head, who read Svidrigailov (and is no relation to Jill), Talia who hosted us and read Dunya, Aries who narrated for us, and Pi-Ta who I think wasn’t reading. Even though the official ceremonies were 5 more days away, it was after this extraordinary afternoon that I truly felt I’d finished school. My play was the project I’d completed there I felt the most proud of. It was the perfect ending to an amazing class that I won’t ever forget.

“To the players of Room 402. All my best times were spent here.”

Graduation: Sunday, Baccalaureate Service

Hey, what’s going on here, where’s my brother? Graduation at Columbia isn’t really a single event, it’s a string of events culminating in the main campus graduation. The chain of events is started by the Baccalaureate service on Sunday. Originally started in England, it was the tradition for each graduating scholar to deliver a sermon in Latin (since most universities began as religious institutions). So this service/ceremony is specifically for honoring the undergraduates at Columbia. The ceremony was held in the chapel on campus, and has evolved into an interfaith service where a couple of students from the graduating class get up and read from various texts. (If I remember correctly, the four faiths represented at this service were Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism). The great part about this day was that my good friend Emilio. He chose to read from the prologue of John’s Gospel, which is my hands-down favorite section in the entire Bible, and I believe is among the most beautiful sections of writing, in English or any other language. Afterwards everyone piled out and was greeted by the University chaplain and several other professors and faculty, including the Dean of Students and the College Provost. The great part about this was that my brother Mark had already arrived in the city and was able to be there at the service with me (although he wasn’t sitting with me). He managed to mise and sneak in the back in the midst of the confusion. His presence, both there and throughout the week, made that time so much richer for me. I’m grateful that he came.

Graduation: Monday, Class Day

At Columbia (University) there are four different undergraduate colleges: Columbia College (the main one), SEAS (the engineering school), GS (my program, for “non-traditional students), and Barnard (the affiliated women’s college). Each of these four colleges have their own private graduation ceremony, called Class Day, since it is the ceremony for each individual class. This is the ceremony where your name is called and your degree read. You get to walk across the stage and shake each of the dean’s hands, although they don’t give you your degree at that point. I remember the ceremony took a LONG time to organize, even though there were only a few hundred of us. But they got us going eventually, and they had a band playing for us (which you can see here). The speaker was a GS alum whose name escapes me, but she had graduated awhile ago and now worked as an IP lawyer in the Bay area. Her speech was good if not terribly moving (at least to me personally) but it was great to see what sorts of things other GS alums have gone on to. Going up and getting my name read was a bit surreal. I remember standing on the line, waiting for them to call my name, then I heard it and I began walking forward, and it was all kind of a blur for a few seconds. Going up there, I was trying to pay attention to the reading of my name because I wanted to hear them read out my Latin honors which I had worked VERY hard to achieve. But somehow, in the midst of that blur, I missed hearing it one way or the other. But my friends told me they did read it. And seeing my classmates graduate, watching them walk across the stage and hearing their names read was in many ways more gratifying than hearing my own name read. It was extraordinary being able to be a part of their lives and their moments, of being able to share that moment together with them. My brother Mark was already in town, but he’d left earlier in the day to go meet my dad at the airport. I hadn’t expected them to come back in time for the ceremony, but they’d made it back midway through and had a chance to see most of it. After the ceremony was over there was a reception on one of the lawns at the campus and it was a great time to mingle with my teachers, classmates, and family and have some great food & drink. We stayed fairly late talking with people and making introductions, and then my family and I went out to dinner. A great evening.

Graduation: Wednesday, Commencement

Tuesday was a day of lull time, there wasn’t anything happening on that day related to graduation, but that worked out fine since my mom and my girlfriend were flying into town that day; it made for a nice break. But Wednesday was the big show, Commencement of the 253rd Graduating Class of Columbia University in the City of New York. We’d been told ahead of time that the ceremony would draw 40,000 people onto the main Morningside Heights campus, so it came as no surprise that the scene down on the street that morning was crazy. It looked like a Saturday market in some foreign country. I met up with my parents, my brother, and my girlfriend to take them down to the main entrance, and then I had to go to a separate entrance for the graduates, which was temporarily being blocked off by the Barnard girls filing in from the campus across the street. 3,000+ graduates, and they only have a single entrance onto the campus for the grads? Not good planning in my mind. But we finally got in.Once we were on the lawn, we had awhile to wait (we being the GS graduates in my class) and I realized that my classmates had been smarter about it than I had. They’d worn shorts and T-shirts under their graduation robes, where I’d worn slacks & a tie. But in due course of time after much fooling around, we got out onto the main seating area.It was quite a sight. The GS class was seated on bleachers to the left hand side of the center plaza. I was glad that we were seated on bleachers as it gave us a much better view of the proceedings, even though they had screens for the guests. All the graduates from all of the different Columbia programs were there: all four of the undergraduate schools, the business school people, the doctors, all the masters and PhD candidates, everyone. The ceremony progressed by having several people come up and speak, then the President of the University (Lee Bollinger, a great guy) gave out the honorary degrees to a bunch of folks mostly nobody knew. After this was finished, the tradition is that the Dean of each of the different schools comes up, gives a speech for why their program’s graduates are so fantastic, and ‘asks’ the President to confer upon them the degrees they have earned. The speech given by the outgoing Dean of the School of Engineering was hilarious, he called his students “solar powered, alloy outfitted, optimally engineered” and other things like this. His students all had noisemakers with them, so they were the loudest bunch and everyone was laughing with them, particularly at the end when the dean rushed back up to the podium and said, “I love you guys!!”Finally the President gets up and agrees to confer the degrees. There is a mace that is carried out of the library as part of the ceremony that represents the President’s power to confer the degrees; apparently it originally came over from England (since Columbia was originally King’s College and was re-established as Columbia after the Revolutionary War). He didn’t ‘wield’ the mace itself, which I thought was a shame, but everyone gets their degrees, and so it was all good in the end. As the ceremony was dispersing, U2’s ‘Beautiful Day’ was playing over the sound system; I paused and just let it all soak in that I was actually finished. My girlfriend told me later that she could tell I was definitely ‘in the moment’ just then, which was true. There was too much emotion and too many different feelings standing there in the sun with my classmates at the end of this amazing journey to totally sum it all up. But that song, which is one of my favorite, hit it pretty close.It wasn’t until I picked up my actual degree right after the ceremony that it truly sunk in that I was finished. Holding it in my hands, something about having a tangible acknowledgement of all that hard work, almost brought me to tears. “My heart is aglow …”