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“You can answer false narratives…and you can set the record straight. And you also have the ability and the power to give voice…to people who desperately now need to tell their stories and have their stories told.”
–Oprah Winfrey, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism Commencement, May 2018
More than twenty years have passed since my own commencement, blurring my memory of the inspirational words that sent me packing into the world of work. But Oprah’s Annenberg School graduation address gave me a renewed sense of professional purpose to “answer false narratives.” As she called on hundreds of future journalists to give voice to those who need to “have their stories told,” I reflected on the stories we are told about graduations themselves and the stories we aren’t told.
May is “graduation season” in the annual news cycle. Typically, we hear stories of young people who spent four years working toward a degree. Increasingly, we hear of underemployment in the face of mounting student debt. What unites these narratives is a narrow portrayal of college as culminating in a bachelor’s or perhaps an associate’s degree. As a result, we hear the story of a narrow set of graduates.
But for thousands of graduates seeking to enter, re-enter or advance in the labor market, college looks very different than what we see each May. In their story, any month could be graduation season.
Take the women who graduated one August evening from a 14-week registered nurse refresher program, a partnership of Jewish Vocational Services, City College of San Francisco, and two local hospitals. Many of these women left nursing to have kids, and returned because their partners lost their jobs or their nest emptied. No celebrities spoke at their graduation, but two 55-year-old returning nurses tap danced to echocardiogram rhythms to the delight of fellow graduates, families and friends.
Take the men and women who received CNC operator certificates from Hennepin Technical College’s M-Powered fast track manufacturing program one December evening. Some graduates watched the industry change around them and needed to re-skill; others wanted to leave low-wage jobs. In the part-time, five-month program they could work while training. No celebrities spoke at their graduation either, but the pride on the faces of the graduates, their families, and their employers spoke volumes.
A poll by Gallup and Strada Education Network found most students seek postsecondary education because of employment goals. So it’s no surprise that so many of America’s workers seek short-term, job-focused college experiences. But these graduates don’t get air time.
The May graduation season news cycle reinforces an outdated, exclusionary view of higher education that doesn’t serve today’s students, workers or the businesses that hire them. But the media is not alone. When candidates propose free four-year degrees for all, when Congress debates higher education policy, when cable news pundits talk about what needs to change on campuses, the loudest voices are too often perpetuating an outdated view of college and college students.
The veteran getting an HVAC repair certificate: This is college. The 55-year-old empty nester returning to nursing: This is college. The mom working at a fast food restaurant while training to be a pharmacy technician: This is college. The baby boomer who has watched manufacturing automate around him and is now learning to repair the robots: This is college.
Let’s celebrate the graduates of May and their accomplishments while broadening our college narrative. Let’s heed Oprah’s call to tell untold stories — not just the next generation of journalists, but the next generation of pundits, advocates, philanthropists, corporate leaders, candidates and policymakers. Let’s shine a light on the hidden worker graduates — on what college really looks like. And then, let’s line up the political will to invest in that vision so that for all of America’s workers, young and old, any night could be graduation night.
Rachel Unruh is the chief of staff of the National Skills Coalition.