Commentary by Dr. Bill Tensley
Young men and women will line up this month robed in caps and gowns grinning at their friends. Their eyes will scan the audience, peering past dangling tassels in search of family members who search for them. Cameras and cell phones will light up stadiums and auditoriums with bursts of light as proud parents try to capture the magic of the moment.
Presidents, principals, guest speakers and valedictorians will speak of new horizons, a future yet to be written, a world to be changed. They will urge those who have reached this achievement to believe in themselves and to never stop learning.
Every graduate that walks across the stage to shake hands with administrators and receive their diploma represents a unique story. Few are as unique as Helen Small. Helen dropped out of college as a freshman in 1938 to marry her sweetheart, help fight a war and raise a family. Seventy years later, at eighty-eight she earned her Bachelor’s degree. In 2010 when she was ninety years old, she graduated with a Masters of Science degree from the University of Texas at Dallas.
In 2011 she published a book, Why not? My Seventy Year Plan for a College Degree. One of her teachers, Dr. John Santrock, a professor of psychology said, “What especially stands out about Helen as a student is how appreciative she is of the opportunity to learn.” Commenting on her college experience as a ninety-year-old, Helen said, “It’s helped me start a whole new phase of life.” At last report, she was lecturing on the topic of life-long learning.
Graduation commencements inspire us because they not only recognize significant achievement, they celebrate new beginnings, new possibilities and opportunities, or, as Helen said, the start of a new phase of life. Education offers to the young the opportunity to acquire knowledge and skills that equip them for the future. For those who are older, it offers the opportunity to re-tool, to start over, to pursue new dreams.
Nothing is as important for a new start on life as a spiritual transformation that connects us with God and places in our hearts the values that make life meaningful. Proverbs says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” (Proverbs 1:7). In Ezekiel God said, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 36:26).
God is always about new beginnings. He offers to the young the opportunity to launch their lives on the path that leads to life and, to those who are older, the opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start over. Whether or not you hold a formal degree from an institution, whether you are nineteen or ninety, you can make a new start on life. Paul wrote in Corinthians “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creation: old things are passed away, behold, all things are become new.” (2 Corinthians 5:17).