It was almost 10 years after we met in Junior High School. My best friend had become my girlfriend and that day we walked across the stage to receive the same honor. We were graduates of Auburn University. The year was 1976.
Mary Lou and I received our diplomas in the Auburn Coliseum. I sat for hours next to people I did not know waiting for my name to be called. There was one ceremony, not divided up by various schools as it is now. We did not have cell phones to text our family or friends. There was no internet to help the time pass. We were glad to be there, just like the graduates of 2021.
My family had rooms at the long-gone Heart of Auburn Motel. I still rib my brother, Ernest, about the lime-green leisure suit he wore to my graduation. I have no recollection of where we ate, because frankly Auburn was not the culinary destination it is now.
After one of the most challenging years for students in history, thousands of Auburn graduates, along with schools across the country, lined up this week to receive that cherished sheepskin signifying a goal achieved. They were finally college graduates.
I walk every day across campus. I walked during the times when the university was shut down due to the pandemic. I had the campus almost to myself. I walked as it gradually came back to life. This past week, I walked as families from around the country joined their proud graduates for the ritual of graduation.
Professional photographers have been lining up with the graduates for the past several weeks. They take their pictures in front of Samford Hall so frequently there is a temporary stage behind the sign to facilitate the photographs. I noticed how many students were having their pictures taken with their dogs. In fact, I heard one young lady tell the photographer she wanted half the pictures with her dog and half without.
Mary Lou and I had one picture. One. It was taken with a Polaroid which dates us as much as anything else. It was not in front of anything significant, but rather outside the front entrance of the Coliseum, which no longer exists thanks to the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center. We could not have even dreamed of such a facility during our student days.
The picture was just the two of us. Both of us had longer hair. Both of us had darker hair. We were excited and full of dreams. That part has not changed.
I look at that single picture now and wonder what I would say to those two young graduates in 1976. With the benefit of 45 years, I would hope I would say the same thing to the graduates of 2021.
My degree at Auburn in Agricultural Economics turned out to be a perfect choice in my life’s work. However, the reason I chose that particular degree, our family peanut business, was gone just eight years later. Nevertheless, what I learned in college served me well for the rest of my working days. I could not have chosen a better curriculum in a better school.
Mary Lou’s history degree led to several advanced degrees that fostered her love for teaching. She loved history. She loved teaching history. It was a match made in heaven.
That part of our journey through life might seem easy and somewhat predictable. Though we chose the right degree path, we found many twists and turns along the way. College prepared us to weather the unexpected storms in our careers.
Many of the friendships we made during those years endure to this day. I am not sure I would want to relive my college days, but I still hold the four years at Auburn as some of the best times of my life.
45 years later, my wife and I find ourselves back at the Loveliest Village on the Plains. Our Georgia friends are confused whether we are the Plainsmen, the Tigers, or the War Eagles. They think we do not exactly know who we are. We know perfectly well. We are part of the Auburn Family.
We find ourselves connected to those young fresh faces joining that family with their diploma in hand. They are ready to conquer the world. I remember the boundless enthusiasm and excitement of those days.
What would I say to these graduates? Can they benefit from the lessons of my life? Probably not. We all seek to find our own way. We must navigate through the curves that life throws at us. We look for the inner strengths that we did not even know we possessed as we walked across that stage.
There is no script in life. That is what makes the journey so exciting. You will make it what you want it to be. You have the foundation of a good education. You have the tools. Make us proud. Write your own book.
I hope to read it one day.
Dan Ponder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org