Original photo by Bonnie Powers

I spent this past weekend in Pittsburgh with my family to attend and celebrate my oldest child’s graduation from the University of Pittsburgh. Of course this was a joyous event for the five of us (especially for my daughter and her friends); however, when I separate what it means to me personally from what it reflects about the bigger picture of life, I find that there’s a lot to say.

We ended our journey in the same place it began–in the Petersen Events Center where freshman convocation was held four years ago. But then again, commencement isn’t really an ending, as the name implies, but the beginning of the next phase of life. And as a parent, this is the really cool thing–somewhere between the two commencements–high school graduation and college graduation–your child’s journey ceases to be your journey, too, and you find that you’re just along for the ride.

Throughout the early years and elementary school and even high school, a parent is pretty much walking down the path alongside their child, sometimes leading the way, other times following, often walking in step, side-by-side. But during the college years, your lives separate to a greater–necessary–degree, and you suddenly realize that the journey is now all theirs. That’s not to say that you’re abandoning them along the road–hardly. The emotional ties grow even stronger while the connection to their daily lives starts to lessen. And you get to watch them create a life that is a reflection of themselves rather than a reflection of you.

This was no ordinary commencement, either. It came in the wake of a siege upon campus–over 144 bomb threats and as many evacuations over the course of the months preceding Sunday’s event.  I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it took courage for the people that filled the arena to near capacity–the students, the faculty, the administration, the families–to attend commencement to honor the achievement of the graduating class despite the implied threat of trouble. While there were no bomb threats during the week before graduation, the silence could have meant something was brewing. Just as campus life continued during the upheaval and constant disruptions, the ceremonies went on as planned over the course of the weekend. It’s gratifying to see intimidation defeated and met instead with steely resolve.

It takes a kind of courage, too, to pursue a degree in what many call a worthless (as in no job or money) area of study. My daughter was a double major in English literature and writing (my younger daughter is a creative writing/French double major). She’s been asked more than once, “What kind of job can you get with that degree? Do you want to teach?” The answer to the first question is probably, “I don’t know yet,” while the answer to the second question is most likely, “No.”

As a parent that paid for most (but not all) of these past four years of undergraduate study, I never asked those questions. I say study what you love and the rest will follow. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Finally, as a parent, although the journey has not been ours, we have been graciously included in our daughter’s life in Pittsburgh. We have made many trips West and have grown to appreciate the city that our daughter now loves and hopes to return to someday. We will miss the bridges and the rivers and the restaurants and the sights and the inspiring vision of the Cathedral of Learning seen in the distance from just about everywhere but especially impressive when approached head on driving down Forbes. Pittsburgh now has meaning for us, too.

My greatest thrill as a parent is watching my children forge their own paths and create their own journeys. This fall, my younger daughter will be studying in France. The graduate will be moving to DC to attend the MFA program at American University. And my son will be embarking on his junior year of high school and beginning to think seriously about college. All of these things are at once both exciting and anxiety-producing. And we, as parents, will be there every step of the way. However, we will not be walking on the path. Instead, we will be the rest stop along the way.

Oh, and Hail to Pitt.