Margaret Venable: Roadrunners leave the nest

Margaret Venable

I think it’s easy to feel nostalgic this time of year as we celebrate the holiday season and wrap up the year.

In higher education, we are not only saying goodbye to the calendar year, but to the end of the fall semester. And with that means graduation and so we saw another group of Dalton State College Roadrunners — approximately 350 of them — leave the nest.

I am extremely proud to see our students accomplish their educational goals, especially these that have faced disruptions due to the pandemic. They’ve worked hard, and I know they will succeed.

But it is also hard to see them leave. Many will keep in touch with us, but we may never know what the future holds for other graduates. I knew when I congratulated some of them as they walked across the stage this week it would be the last time I saw them.

We’ve prepared them to leave their nest. They are ready. We know they will "run boldly" toward their future, both professionally and personally.

I have become attached to these students, as I always do. I watched them discover themselves and develop into adults who are ready for the next step, whether it be the workforce or furthering their education. This is why I have spent my career in higher education, although it comes with these bittersweet feelings, similar to watching my son graduate college, marry and begin his adult life in another state.

I believe in our students. I have watched them evolve into the best versions of themselves, develop deep relationships, increase their self-confidence and become excellent employees, parents and neighbors who make our community a better place to live and work.

I regularly hear from local employers how happy they are to hire our students. And our students often come back to campus to inspire the next generation of students. Meeting our recent graduates and hearing their stories helps our students envision themselves as successful graduates.

Despite the fact that Dalton State is one of the most affordable four-year colleges in the nation, our students often hold down full-time jobs or multiple part-time jobs to put themselves through college and support their families. When they graduate, they already have a strong work ethic and sense of responsibility. Many are already raising their children in our community, preparing the next generation to lead. Nearly two-thirds of our students graduate with zero student loan debt.

Social media is a modern blessing and curse, but I am glad to be able to follow some of our former students through these connections. I see their professional and personal events. I see their engagements, weddings, birth announcements, as well as the tragedies life brings. I see their acceptances to and graduations from graduate school and their first job offers and promotions. As I follow their lives, I am as proud as any mother could be of her own children. I know how far they have come and how hard they worked for these triumphs, and I am excited to see how they are making the world and our community better.

Half of our students are among the first generation in their family to attend college, and the graduations of these students are celebrated by their extended family. We know the children of college graduates are more likely to attend college, so we are impacting many more lives than the few hundred graduates. We are changing the lives of our students for generations to come and that makes these graduates even more dear to me.

For many years, I dreamed of the life depicted in Normal Rockwell paintings. Over the years, I have come to understand that no one’s life is like a Normal Rockwell painting. But when I am looking over the audience at our graduates, I feel like the teacher in “Happy Birthday Miss Jones.” It’s the iconic painting of the teacher in front of the blackboard smiling at her students with happy birthday wishes on the blackboard behind her. That’s a portrait of me, smiling at our Dalton State graduates.

Margaret Venable is president of Dalton State College.

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