College graduations are physically and emotionally draining. The days are long – packed with official ceremonies, lists of names read slowly in alphabetical order, and dress shoes filing one by one across the stage. Relatives come to visit, nobody gets enough sleep, and there’s still so much packing to do. To top it all off, you receive a single piece of paper, your diploma, and suddenly everything seems to change. The academic bubble bursts and it’s time to leave the friends who have become like family.
A few days ago I graduated from Northwestern University, and yesterday I said goodbye to one of my best friends. The moments before he left were ordinary: we met another friend at a café; we talked about the GRE exam, subletters and summer jobs; we drove home and listened to pop songs on the radio. Then we hugged and said we’d see each other soon, and I knew we would, but I still had to fight tears as I turned to walk away.
Hours later I sat in my bedroom, resisting a cliché temptation to play Vitamin C’s graduation song as I tried to determine why these goodbyes are so hard for me, even when I know they’re not forever. I’m not sad about losing my friends because I know I won’t – we’ll make an effort to visit each other soon, wherever we end up. I’m sad about losing something greater – the community we created here at Northwestern – because we’ll never again live in the same place at once. We won’t be able to hop in the car for a weekend road trip to Michigan, head to a café for coffee, or go to someone’s apartment for a late night game of cards.
As a student I always considered college in terms of exams and GPA, but lately I’ve been thinking about it much more in terms of community. In many ways, college was the first time I really learned what a community is and why it’s so important. I grew up in a great neighborhood when I was younger, but my parents and family members were my main support network. At Northwestern I had an opportunity to live with people who were my age, had similar interests and were going through many of the same challenges. Away from my family and home, I made friends and expanded my support network – creating a new family and a new home for myself, which is what I think community means.
Northwestern’s commencement speaker this year was Stephen Colbert, an alumni and TV sensation who entertained us with stories about his own time at Northwestern. In between jokes, he slipped in a serious message about community that I found quite compelling. He spoke about his move to Chicago and the beginning of his improv career with Second City.
“Now, there are very few rules to improvisation, but one of the things I was taught early on is that you are not the most important person in the scene. Everybody else is. And if they are the most important people in the scene, you will naturally pay attention to them and serve them. But the good news is you’re in the scene, too, so hopefully to them you’re the most important person, and they will serve you. No one is leading. You’re all following the follower, serving the servant. You cannot win improv.
And life is an improvisation. You have no idea what’s going to happen next and you are mostly just making things up as you go along. And like improv, you cannot win your life – even when it might look like you’re winning. I have my own show, which I love doing, full of very talented people ready to serve me. And it’s great. But at my best, I am serving them just as hard, and together we serve a common idea – in this case the character Stephen Colbert, who it’s clear isn’t interested in serving anyone. And a sure sign that things are going well is when no one can really remember whose idea was whose, or who should get credit for what jokes (though naturally I get credit for all of them).
But if we should serve others, and together serve some common goal or idea – for any one, what is that idea and who are those people? In my experience, you will truly serve only what you love, because as the prophet says, service is love made visible. If you love friends, you will serve your friends. If you love community, you will serve your community. If you love money, you will serve money. And if you love only yourself, you will serve only yourself, and you will have only yourself. So no more winning. Instead, try to love others and serve others, and hopefully find those who love and serve you in return.”
These past few months, I’ve been consumed with worry about finding a job and being successful in “the real world.” But now that graduation is over, as I scour the job postings and start my applications, I can only think about my friends. I’m worried about moving to a new city by myself and trying to build another support network, worried about starting over from scratch. I still want to be successful, sure, but more than that I want to live with a close group of friends. As Colbert recommends, I want to love and serve others, to find others who love me in return.
So for now I sit in a mostly empty room and imagine moving away. I forbid myself from playing Vitamin C’s graduation song but can’t help looking through old photo albums of my friends. And I wonder why I never realize until the very end just how important a person or place has been to my life. Why is it always the night before moving day, amidst packed boxes and blank walls, that I suddenly understand what it means to have a home? Why is it in the ordinary moments before goodbye, driving in the car with pop songs on the radio, that I feel how wonderful it is to have a friend?
As a college student I became part of a community, and as a college graduate I know I’ll miss that community dearly. As I move forward into the real world I’ll try to keep my friends close, and I can only hope that I’ll remember to appreciate how much they mean to me while we’re still together.