Graduation isn't just matter of degrees

Column by Ann Macari Healey


A week ago, Ana Elfring, 18, graduated from high school. The event wasn't particularly emotional — she was ready to move on, the diploma the required bridge to a university education and her future.

Two weeks ago, T.J. Sweetin's grandfather solemnly handed him a folded American flag that had flown over the state Capitol; his parents proudly pinned the rank of second lieutenant onto his dress blue uniform. A college degree in hand and four years of ROTC behind him, the 21-year-old was, officially, finally, a Marine.

Around the same time, Ellen Theis exuberantly accepted her English degree, six years after beginning it — and more than 30 years after her first literature class — on the day before her 52nd birthday.

“I would call it a milestone,” Theis said, “and a dream come true.”

The school year's end marks one of life's milestones, the ritual of graduation, an acknowledgment of accomplishment, a rite of passage from one point in life to another, wrapped in assorted ribbons of meaning.

Educational achievements aren't the only milestones that become defining pieces of our stories. There are first drivers' licenses, first jobs, 25th wedding anniversaries and 50th birthdays. They seem to impart needed stamps of approval on life's timeline.

Interestingly, studies show countries with well-established cultural rites of passage — “very distinct before and afters” — tend to have lower crime rates in young adulthood, said Kim Gorgens, an assistant professor of psychology at University of Denver.

Just as compelling, added Gorgens, is the mind's ability to hold onto noteworthy memories about ourselves.

“We have this natural tendency to be storytellers,” she said. “The autobiographical episodic memory is particularly resistant to decay. … As we are losing our capacity to define ourselves, the last thing to go is our recall for significant events. It has a natural buoyancy.”

Perhaps that's because they can be among our happiest times.

For Ana Elfring, these moments are more a series of steppingstones than milestones.

Her 4-foot-11 slight frame belies a fierce strength. Determined to gather the resources needed to get herself to University of Colorado at Boulder, she navigated the financial aid maze on her own, securing several scholarships and a work-study grant.

“It makes me feel really accomplished,” Elfring says of her successful effort to pay for college. “It's like a weight off my shoulders.”

She is most excited about the independence to choose what her day will look like, from what she eats to when she studies to what she does for fun. She plans to study biology and considers that graduation from college will, perhaps, mean more than her high school steppingstone.

“I like to live more in the present than looking forward to something,” Elfring says. “But just because I'm not as goal-oriented doesn't mean that I don't strive to succeed. It's just that I don't look at things as `Well, at this point I should have achieved this much.' I just kind of do my best as I'm going and see where it takes me. And, so far, I've been taken to pretty decent places. I'm going to the school I want to go to. I have friends and I have a job. So I'm pretty happy.”

Thomas Joseph Sweetin is a tall, adventurous young man called T.J. after his namesake, his great-grandfather. His father's job with the Drug Enforcement Administration moved the family around the country and instilled a love for change and excitement of the unknown. He likes to look forward and mark the big moments.

Earning an international affairs degree from CU was definitely more meaningful than receiving a high school diploma for Sweetin. “College was different because I put so much work into it,” he says of days that involved not only academic studies but also hours of training and community service for the 100 students in ROTC.

But the greater milestone, he says, is being commissioned into the Marines.

“So many of my friends were upperclassmen, and we saw them graduate and get deployed, and you're counting down the days to that,” Sweetin says. “When you're a freshman, it feels so far off. You're kind of waiting … for that day. The entire culmination of that whole college career is summed up in the one commissioning day.”

In October, Sweetin heads to Quantico, Va., for six months of basic officer training. The next benchmark, he says, will be deployment.

“It feels really good,” he says. “Life — it's exciting. I've been ready for a while to get on with it.”

On a recent Sunday morning, at the athletic field of Metropolitan State University of Denver, Ellen Theis hurled her dark blue cap into the air in exultation. A wife and mother who describes herself as a “why not?” person, she had always felt “less than” without a college degree.

The achievement filled her to brimming.

“When it really hit was when I picked up my cap and gown,” she says. “It was very surreal. It was joyous. … I was struck wordless by the profound feeling of satisfaction and deep pride in myself.”

The journey had been long and circuitous.

After high school, without encouragement or financial resources for higher education, Theis worked odd jobs and became a hairdresser. Children and family then became priorities. But hovering in the back of her mind, always, was a yearning for school: “I wanted to learn about James Joyce and Shakespeare, and I wanted always to know more.”

Over the years, through four colleges and three states, she took a course here and there. At 46, when she saw friends pursuing degrees, she decided she could do it, too. She started with one course a semester and kept adding until she was juggling four at once. And on graduation day, she proudly hung a blue-and-gold cum laude cord around her neck.

She briefly considered not attending commencement. Then she realized if she walked away, the moment might be lost. “It's much sweeter,” Theis said, “when it's not handed easily to you.”

She needed to mark this passage well. So her dad and stepmother flew in from California. Her husband and daughters, 15 and 13, bore witness, too.

After, she felt complete. “My ideal self,” Theis said, “has a degree.”

And so ends this season of milestones.

Ann Macari Healey's column about people, places and issues of everyday life appears every other week. She can be reached at or 303-566-4110.


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