In the past week, I have found myself in the audience at two very different graduation ceremonies. I suppose that’s the nature of this time of year, and this time of my life.
Savannah, our site coordinator, and Dr. Sherryl Broverman, our program leader, both warned us several times about the nature of this year’s schedule. Most of the time, Duke students arrive at WISER with about a week between their arrival and graduation. In that time, they get to know the girls a little, and learn their way around WISER’s campus and Muhuru Bay in general. Students often already have dresses made at the local tailor by the time graduation rolls around. But this year, after an 11-hour, hot and bumpy car ride through a series of Kenyan market towns, we arrived to a beautiful campus overtaken with tables, chairs, signs, and big, white tents. There was a sense of excitement and preparation in the air—which in turn made us all a little frenzied.
I remember that frenzy last year before my graduation. My high school, Hammond, packed the month of May full of obligations. We found ourselves jumping from stress and relief of AP exams, senior transition day, yearbook day, a week-long trek in the Appalachian Mountains, awards day, graduation parties, actual graduation…and more parties. By the time I made it to graduation, it seemed almost an anticlimax. I craved stillness and peace.
I saw two of my best friends graduate on May 20th, having watched them feel that same frenzy. They wore a cap and gown, and walked across a stage, and became high school graduates. I was so excited for them, and proud to be their friend.
I found myself, after my friends’ ceremony, being asked “So, when do you head out?” My answer was a nervous, “Um, tomorrow!” It was as if the trip was buzzing at a high pitch in the back of my mind the whole day before—not unlike the high-pitched buzzing feeling I got before my own graduation.
And exactly a year after my own graduation, I got on a plane to Kenya.
Since arriving, most moments have been frenzied ones. The buzzing continues. Nairobi was stimulating and confusing and exciting, and left me with so much to think about and write about. And once we got to where we belong, we began trying to work out daily life—eating, sleeping, talking to people—in the midst of graduation, and all that came with it.
The energy was the same. I don’t think that’s something that changes across cultures. Graduation is perhaps most meaningful because of the people watching it.
I think this energy is best embodied in our welcome ceremony. Minutes after our arrival, we were ushered into the multipurpose room in the light of sunset, hearing voices singing together, louder and louder as we approached. Each grade did a dance for us, and we were introduced to some of the faculty while the girls helped to introduce each of us. It was there that I heard the WISER song for the first time—now I can’t wait to hear it again. I had been hot, sweaty, and a little Dramamine-drunk, but being with the girls for the first time was overwhelming and beautiful enough to take my mind away from that discomfort. And walking outside to see the sky full of stars, in the cool night air, felt invigorating in the midst of exhaustion.
Yesterday, we woke up at 5:30 a.m., ate breakfast (I’m taking so much Kenyan tea home with me), then ate breakfast again, with the girls. Much of the morning was waiting for the ceremony to begin. Graduation from Hammond began promptly; graduation from WISER began when the guest of honor, the global impact coordinator for Johnson & Johnson (a longtime WISER sponsor) arrived (that happened at about 11 a.m). Graduation from Hammond had a limited number of seats (I snuck in without a ticket); kids from primary schools in Muhuru populated the benches around the circle of chairs that older people sat in. Hammond graduation lasted exactly an hour; WISER graduation lasted more like 5 hours, with dancing, singing, introductions, and speeches of every variety and length. Hammond graduated 69 students this year, WISER graduated 25. There were crying babies at both.
The energy was the same. I don’t think that’s something that changes across cultures. Graduation is perhaps most meaningful because of the people watching it. There are your parents, who got you to school. There are your teachers, who were the reason you went to school. There are your friends, who made school wonderful. And there are the people who have years to go before being in your shoes—siblings, cousins, kids in younger grades—who remind you where you started. The celebration of achievement and attainment touches so many—everyone on campus yesterday—and so of course it comes with high energy, and a good bit of frenzy. Every person in the audience—at Hammond and at WISER—felt the pride and joy that I felt watching my friends graduate. That energy is palpable, and beautiful, and universal.
I have many more graduations to attend in my lifetime, but even sooner than that, I have many more WISER girls to meet. The pride of watching my friends walk across the stage at Hammond graduation is a pride that I hope to feel watching some of these girls graduate one day. The frenzy, the energy, the pride—I think they all manifest in what is ultimately one of the most joyful experiences. Growing up, celebrating, graduating.