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This graduation season, I attended five graduation ceremonies. The volume is a bit uncommon for me, and the diversity of the students was even more unusual. As a school board trustee, professional consultant with expertise in leadership development, and proud cousin, I had the chance to watch and participate in the following commencement events:

1. Medical school
237 newly minted doctors completed their academic training, considered by some to be the pinnacle of academic rigor, in Detroit, Michigan and prepared for their residency training.

2. Corporate executive high-potential development program
12 of the best leaders at Fortune 50 companies – global technology leaders – completed a rigorous program that built their modern leadership capabilities, so they can take on the challenges of an industry that will define the digital future.”

3. Public high school
574 students completed their primary studies to earn a diploma. Now they are ready to change the world through a variety of pursuits from continuing their education, to trade occupations, to public service.

4. Public alternative education high school
47 students, the communities largest graduating class thus far, proudly earned their diploma by challenging themselves to learn and grow through impressive, non-traditional programs.

5. Special needs public adult learning school
3 students with special education needs completed a comprehensive program at a school servicing only students with disabilities. The program teaches students through the age of 26 how to live and interact in the general community. They learn life operations and hold jobs at businesses in the surrounding area.

As I sat in the audience facing the various groups of graduates, I paid attention to what they had in common. They all had pageantry. They all played “Pomp and Circumstance,” aside from the corporate program. (Am I the only one who grew up watching WWF wrestling in the 1980s and still imagines Randy Macho Man Savage walking into the ring every time that iconic piece plays?… oh yeah!) And while each commencement was unique, they all had speeches with celebratory and inspiring remarks.

At the med school graduation, a prominent physician and medical school dean spoke about the humanity of care and how it was critical to deliver care beyond the clinical solution. Excellent care also extends to the human needs of the patient and their support network.

At the corporate program, a prominent C-level executive shared the importance of stretching yourself to take risks and championing new ideas knowing that success is not guaranteed and career paths rarely move in a straight line.

Student leaders at the high schools shared what it means to be a part of a community. They glowed with optimism as they shared personal stories and were ready to bravely pursue careers with confidence.

The special needs ceremony stressed resilience and determination. They emphasized relationships and teamwork while being your true, proud self. The outcome matters, but reward can also be found in the journey.

I took it all in. As I listened to the comments from the front of the room, talked with people in the hallways, and spoke with my friends, family, and the loved ones of the other graduations, there was a loud, clear, and compelling common element.

At each commencement people talked about personally investing in each other.

Experienced doctors invest time mentoring, teaching, and demonstrating techniques while trusting students to safely practice and learn. Corporate leaders spend their time coaching employees who could be the next generation of high-potential leaders, and they create new opportunities for them to thrive. Teachers and counselors go beyond their curriculum to connect with students and help them build skills and confidence. Therapists, teachers, and social workers help special needs students embrace what makes them unique and prepare them to contribute to their communities.

Every graduate on the five stages was there in some part because of what others had done to help them get there. The students certainly earned it through hard work. They contributed effort, commitment, and drive. And the doctors, business mentors, teachers, and any other influencers returned this effort by going well beyond their job descriptions to get to know – really know – the learner. These committed people embraced the abilities and dreams of their students. In many cases, they saw what the students could not see in themselves.

The common element in all the graduations was, quite simply, the human connection.

No matter what type of graduation ceremony you attend, they all exist to capture milestones. When we step back, regardless of the program, career, age of the student, or skills acquired, people investing in each other plus hard work was the common formula that led to the achievement of these milestones.

Witnessing such diverse groups at life-defining moments—achieved through a combination of individual effort and the guidance, time, and care of others—was a powerful reminder that great learning requires a great human connection.

June 25, 2019

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