Oppenheim: The Road To Graduation

May 9, 2019

I’ve been teaching for 10 years now and I’m just finishing up my 5th year at Champlain College. In my work, I get to connect with young people in a very transitional phase in their lives – from about 18 to 22 years old.

It can be such a remarkable shift. They come in so geeky and kind of unformed – but when they leave, I can really see the adults they’re going to be. It’s powerful to watch – and be part of – that transformation.

But this year, there’s another layer. My daughter Ellen will also be graduating from Champlain – and her story has given me deeper perspective.

Nearly 3 years ago, Ellen came to Vermont in transition. She was a disillusioned college volleyball athlete who’d never really taken academics seriously. Ellen crashed at our house – and with a nudge, I suggested she take a creative writing class at Champlain. How could it hurt?

Suddenly, there was enthusiasm. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen her get really turned on by a class, but it was definitely the first time in a while. She enrolled as a professional writing major the following semester and to my wonderment, she was now really ready to be a college student, to take on the intellectual and personal responsibilities that come with the role.

With other students, there’s often a sort-of parental aspect to my connection as teacher where I feel an investment in their future. Sometimes there are disappointments and it can be hard to see any student struggle and get lost.

But more than anyone else has, my daughter showed me how college is a place where a person can be found. Here, Ellen discovered her bearings, developed her identity and – I think - set a long-term direction. And it’s been a treat for me to watch all that happen up close.

So at graduation this weekend, I’ll be thinking about this bumpy ride we call higher education. I know it’s not always the answer. But when it clicks, it’s a joy.