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Some practical university commencement advice

Pro tips for surviving a graduation weekend

Georgetown grads listen to Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the Walsh School of Foreign Service in Washington on May 21. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

On Sunday, many institutions of higher learning held their commencement ceremonies — including my home institution, Tufts University. More commencement exercises will be held in the next few weeks.

I usually attend the Fletcher School’s commencement ceremony as a beaming member of the faculty, resplendent in full academic regalia from my alma mater, which as these things go looks very stylish. This year, however, I had a conflicting obligation: My son was earning his B.A. in sociology from Tufts. So this past Sunday, I played the role of faculty member for a small part of the day and proud parent for the rest of the weekend.

Being a faculty member at a commencement ceremony is a little like having a first-class ticket on an international flight. You get the best seats, you get to go to your seat first, you have access to a pre-commencement lounge with snacks and drinks, and on the whole, everyone involved treats you well. Being a parent at a commencement ceremony is like sitting in the back row, middle seat of a plane that your child is piloting. It is not terribly comfortable, there are few frills, but you do not care about any of this because holy cow your child — the one who you swear was waddling around in diapers just a short while ago — is flying the plane! That’s amazing!

Having now experienced this ceremony multiple times from these viewpoints, let me offer some helpful pieces of advice for those attending a commencement in the near future. I am not talking about the advice one receives from a typical commencement speech about living life to the fullest or mapping out one’s future. I am talking about how to get through commencement weekend with extended family without it devolving into recriminations, guilt, shouting and exhaustion.

First, divide the labor in advance. Some undergraduates have sufficient levels of executive functioning to gracefully host the entire weekend. These matriculating students are in the decided minority, however. So, a few months in advance, parents should talk to their graduating child about the run of show for the weekend. If they seem incapable of organizing anything that far in advance, do some loose planning yourself and loop them in. The larger the family contingent that is arriving, the more the parents should be shouldering the burden.

Second, remember that graduation is not a competition. Some kids will graduate summa cum laude with highest honors in their major. Others will barely graduate. All of this is okay. Anyone who receives a diploma has already run multiple gantlets to get onto that commencement stage. All families should be bursting with pride for their matriculating relative.

Third, set expectations low for the day of commencement. Remember that the overwhelming majority of time in any commencement ceremony consists of someone saying (and often mispronouncing) a lot of names that you have never heard before. Few commencement addresses are memorable.

My point is, expect to be bored most of the time. Enjoy the pleasant surprises, like the benediction that adds a note of grace or the student speech that surprises you with insight and emotion.

Finally, never forget health and safety. Some readers are no doubt aware that the greatest commencement speech never given starts with “wear sunscreen.” That is good advice, particularly on graduation day if you’re sitting out in the sun! Similarly, drink fluids. Sitting outside in the sun can be tough, but doing so dehydrated is that much more detrimental to one’s health. Have a light meal before the ceremony starts — never graduate on an empty stomach. And remember, wear sunscreen.