For nontraditional students, commencement comes with a feisty pride

Jon Marmor, Columns Magazine

The other day, I walked by Hec Edmundson Pavilion—and immediately felt butterflies in my stomach. It didn’t have anything to do with memories of being dazzled by Nate Robinson’s out-of-this-world dunks or watching the women’s volleyball team skunk USC. My commencement was held in Hec Ed when I graduated from the UW in the early 1990s.

I remember it so clearly—a bright Saturday morning, a big crowd of us capped-and-gowned alumni-to-be, standing with excited family members as we waited to march inside. This was my second graduation (15 years after my first, at another institution). But this one meant a lot more because I was a nontraditional student this time around.

When this year’s commencement is held inside Husky Stadium, a good number of the students who will receive their diplomas won’t be those who came here straight out of high school. About a third will be transfer students who came here after two years of community college. Another group will be nontraditional students: those who maybe couldn’t afford college right out of high school, or had to interrupt their studies because life got in the way. Or, like me, returned to the classroom eons later to pursue a lifelong dream.

Students enrolling here out of high school have the opportunity to settle in, build their very own community and get the full Husky Experience. But I like to think that those of us who had to zig and zag a little more along the way to receiving our UW diplomas feel a bit of feisty pride. When I returned to school in my mid-30s to pursue a degree in photography, I was nearly twice as old as my classmates and older than some of my instructors. Reacquainting myself with homework and the vibe of school was a challenge. Plus, I didn’t know a soul here.

Which is why the second time around meant more—precisely because it required me to adjust to new surroundings, meet new people and learn the best time to hit Parnassus Café in the Art Building to grab a black-and-white cookie and a Diet Coke before art history class. I wanted to squeeze absolutely everything I could out of my education this time. I’m sure the late Richard Arnold, one of my photography professors, breathed a sigh of relief when I graduated because I was always dragging him back into the darkroom to learn how to make better prints. (Yeah, I was here in the ancient film days.)

Commencement is a great celebration, for everyone. For transfer and nontraditional students, it will mean more than you can imagine. I know from personal experience.