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When Students - and Parents - Graduate

FOR tuition-paying parents, there may be no sweeter music this time of year than the majestic strains of "Pomp and Circumstance," played while black-robed graduates file into an auditorium for commencement exercises. What other ceremony can produce quite the same combination of joy and relief as fathers and mothers watch sons and daughters stride across a stage to collect a piece of paper that has cost anywhere from $40,000 to more than $80,000, depending on the school? Bank accounts may be running on em pty, but hearts are definitely full.

Like other ceremonies, commencement is a public event filled with private emotions. Increasingly, it has become a glamour industry as colleges and universities vie for high-profile speakers to bring added stature to their institutions. Yet however newsworthy these speeches by professional cheerleaders might be, the real drama of the day lies in the quiet stories tuition-payers themselves could tell about the trials and triumphs involved in shepherding their children along a 17-year educational journey th at begins with the first day of kindergarten and ends with this ceremony.

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On a rainy Sunday afternoon in June, the president of one Midwestern college pays tribute to this monumental effort by telling the assembled commencement guests: "In a very real sense, parents have provided the support that has made this ceremony possible."

Students, too, acknowledge that help. Beyond the obvious pride they take in introducing their parents to classmates during weekend activities, several devise more public gestures of appreciation. One graduate uses orange tape to spell a message to her parents on the top of her mortarboard - "I [heart] U M&D." Another accepts her diploma, then turns to the audience and calls out, "I did it, Mom!"

At the end of the ceremony, as jubilant members of the Class of 1993 file out of the auditorium, cameras flash. Video cameras whirr. Families cheer. At the same time, a question hangs in the air: What next?

According to one career counselor here, 20 percent of these newly minted graduates have found a job or an internships that could lead to permanent employment. For the remaining 80 percent, there are still resumes to send out, calls to make, interviews to arrange.

Despite predictions by economists about tight labor markets, this generation of graduates may be better equipped for job hunting than their parents were at the same age. They are savvy about writing cover letters and resumes. They have learned about networking and researching prospective companies. Even their somber black caps and gowns cannot hide the youthful energy and optimism that will help to carry them through this and other transitions.

Later, as students pack their belongings and prepare to leave the comforting familiarity of this campus launching pad, dormitories and parking lots become the setting for tearful farewells. And as cars loaded with a four-year accumulation of possessions - among them the stereos, computers, televisions, and even microwaves that have become standard equipment for students - leave campus for the last time and head into the future, another question arises: Commencement speakers may exhort new graduates to "g o for it," but who speaks to the parents? Who tells them that from this day forth they too are about to face a new beginning of their own?

For on those June afternoons that campuses appear to be created for, old alliances are loosened, new alliances are formed, and it is the parent rather than the child who may be more affected. The supporting parent now is subtly recast as supportive parent. The old vertical relationship - parent-child - begins its modification into a horizontal relationship between equals: two adults, with maybe the younger adult more equal. The parents - still needing to be needed - will be the ones waiting for the phone

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to ring. But when it does, when the parents are sought out, they will feel the new pleasure of knowing their child is turning to them as a matter of choice rather than out of necessity.

In the time it takes to snap a graduation picture, two generations start to redefine themselves, and the family too while they're at it. Not a bad afternoon's work, as higher education goes.

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