College Matters | Golden Grads share advice

This article was originally posted in the College Matters column of the Times-Standard.

Thursday, May 26, 2022 - 2:00pm

One of the most significant activities on a college campus is its commencement exercises. It is what we work toward for each student and their family. It is also our most formal and meaningful event. Commencement showcases our graduates, our faculty, and our alumni with pride, and it highlights society’s aspirations for a better world.

At the College of the Redwoods, just like at Cal Poly Humboldt, commencement is emotional. The event is filled with smiles and tears. As a university president, commencement is one of my favorite days. I see, as I glance at a family member, their relief … pride … hope … and sense of accomplishment for their student. I see the impact of a lifetime’s investment in hoping their child will walk across that stage as a college graduate. I also see the sense of wonderment, exploration, renewal, and accomplishment as each student walks across the stage to receive their diploma and to shake my hand.

On this given day, these students become college graduates. They represent the 7% of people across the world who can call themselves college graduates. It is a very small group. When you flash forward, and compare our new graduates to our Golden Graduates who graduated at least 50 years ago, you can see the impact of a college education for that person and their family.

Golden Grads are invited to return every year to participate in commencement. They are incredible people. They have stories of life in Humboldt County decades earlier. They have lived a full life, often raised children, and now are likely retired. They are our grandparents, our neighbors, our former leaders, our elders, and the wisest souls around us. Each Golden Grad is invited to wear a gold commencement gown at the ceremony. We call each participant to the stage while we listen briefly to the best advice they may have for that moment — a mix of funny, sincere, and deeply real.

This year’s Cal Poly Humboldt commencement ceremonies on May 14 featured some particularly poignant comments, which I thought you might enjoy.

Judge Abby Abinanti, who graduated from Humboldt in 1970 with a degree in Journalism, represented alumni at all the ceremonies. “Judge Abby” is the Chief Judge for the Yurok Tribe and the first Native American woman to pass the California bar. She encouraged graduates to stay true to their values and to take responsibility for the people and places around them.

“You’ve learned a lot here. You’re really really smart, and you know a lot of things. What I want to remind you of is the things that you knew before you came here, the values that you had from your people, from your ancestors … What is your first obligation? Your first major obligation is to learn how to be a good ancestor. This is what I expect of you, this is what you need to expect of yourselves, and this is what your ancestors expect of you.”

— Judge Abby Abinanti

Local hero and homeless advocate Betty Chinn received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters at this year’s commencement. Dr. Chinn shared a story about helping a homeless youth finish high school. That individual is now an emergency room physician in New York, and he sent her a Mother’s Day card sharing that he had been able to save many lives during the pandemic.

“Nobody should give up on a child. Every child deserves a second chance. And do not judge. You do not know who is sitting next to you. Maybe homeless, maybe not. But do not judge anybody. Everybody deserves their opportunity.”

— Dr. Betty Chinn

From the Golden Graduates, this advice was shared:

“Be true to yourself, family, friends, community, and country and have in your life: love, laughter, kindness, honesty, faith, music, and a little alone time as needed. All will serve you well.”

— Alan Battle (‘72 Physical Education) and Mimi Battle (‘70 Teaching Credential)

“Before settling down, promise yourselves one great adventure. You deserve it!”

— Ron Melin (‘71 Geography)

“Dive into your studies, make friends — some of whom will become lifelong — and hike the trails!”

— Joyce Melin (Attended ‘69 Geography)

“My generation fought for many worthwhile goals, but despite some successes, many of us lost the thread. Given the challenges facing this country and the world today, I hope that you can use your energy, talents, and knowledge to organize, struggle for and ultimately realize a better and more just world.”

— Dale Preston (‘72 Mathematics)

“Find and pursue something you have passion for and stay optimistic. Humor heals.”

— Richard Morris (‘72 Political Science)

“Be respectful of each other, the environment and differences. And don’t sweat the small stuff.”

— Cindy Jeffress (‘72 Education)

Graduates today seem youthful and often optimistic. One thing we learned from our Golden Grads is that the sense of pride and optimism doesn’t go away. That spirit for life and a better world continues. Lifetimes of hope were visible for all to see and experience.

Be well.

Dr. Tom Jackson Jr. is the president of Cal Poly Humboldt.