Going Forth With Confidence

On graduation day, with one of my favorite professors, Becky Ankeny

On graduation day, with one of my favorite professors, Becky Ankeny

My hair was huge and puffy on college graduation day: giant swells of curls that poofed out from under my cap, no doubt creating a giant hedge for those unfortunate enough to be seated behind me.  I’d let my best friend do my hair for graduation, and she had lots of ideas about me that were different than my own: about what I should wear, who I should date, how my hair should look. I favored a ponytail, she preferred giant fluff, and on graduation day, the fluff won out. (Though I’m thankful I followed her most innovative idea about fifteen years ago, and emailed my now-husband when she suggested we might be compatible.) On that April day in 1990, I marched from the gymnasium after receiving my diploma, our small school band laboring its way through Pomp and Circumstance, and some poofy hair caught in my mouth. Trying to delicately blow it out brought an unceremonious end to my college career.

After commencement, as my giant hair and I waited in the hallway for my family to find me, an acquaintance walked up to congratulate me. I burst into tears, which left him a bit flummoxed, awkwardly standing beside me and giving me the sideways Christian hug we tend to use when we want to be compassionate and simultaneously desire to flee. I’m sure he thought I was crying because I had harbored some long, amorous fantasy about him, and for the last twenty plus years, I’ve wanted to tell that man my tears weren’t about him at all, but about something much larger. (I still see him around town or at church now and then, and wonder if he thinks I’m sad we never hooked up, all because I sobbed into his tense shoulder at graduation. Would it be weird to let him know now that his shoulder just happened to be a convenient one to cry on?)
Apart from the hair, graduation day was a bittersweet one for me. I was ready to move on to the next big thing in my life, which at that point meant working for the Mennonite Board of Missions in some yet-undefined city, doing God’s business among the poor, the most sanctified path I believed I could take as Christian wanting to change the world.  But I was also devastated to be leaving college, both because of the great friends I’d made, but also because I’d failed at the Christian college promise: the one that said, by the time I graduated, I would have a ring on my finger, if not a MRS. Degree. Without that accomplishment—without any prospects, even—I was being sent into the world alone, while all my friends waved good-bye with giant rocks on their hands, symbolic of God’s blessing in their lives. All I had was my big hair, and an awkward acquaintance giving me a side-armed hug for my tears.
As graduation approaches this year, I’m reminded again of a survey of Christian college graduates, completed in the last decade, suggesting that when women leave four-year institutions, their confidence is lower than when they first began school. Men who graduate from Christian institutions have higher levels of confidence than in their first year. Kendra and I began our project with this information firmly in mind. We wondered what kind of messaging young women are getting in their Christian education that erodes their confidence—and how those messages were different than what young men receive. We also wondered whether we could do anything (beyond what we already were doing, teaching at our respective Christian institutions) to alter what women were feeling when they left college.
In our research, we’ve discovered that the messages young women get are especially confusing, about who and what they should be as thinking, living, active women. After all, they’ve learned their entire lives that having and serving a family is the highest calling for Christian women, though they now have degrees that equip them for a career, too. They’ve heard that some careers are more godly than others, though some have ambitions that don’t seem sanctified in the pantheon of holy jobs. They’ve heard that women are to be silent, but they have the gift of speaking. They’ve heard that Christian college is the best place to find a mate, but they are graduating without a life-long partner. 
My mom and me at graduation: she looks the quintessential Mennonite mother, and I look like a fluffy-headed sailor.

My mom and me at graduation: she looks the quintessential Mennonite mother, and I look like a fluffy-headed sailor.

I felt that same swirl of confusion 22 years ago this weekend, and so graduation remains a bittersweet memory, despite all the good that has happened in the years since, and despite the lucky break I eventually got, returning to teach at the school I once loved and left. Still, were I to have a moment with my younger self on graduation day, I might tell her this: Relax. Enjoy the opportunity you have to explore the world alone. Don’t worry about a career just yet. Don’t assume it’s God’s will for youto work with the inner-city poor: you’ll suck at it. Forget about a Mrs. Degree: there’s a lot to do in your 20s, and it’s better for you to travel solo for awhile. Your worth—and God’s love for you—is not determined by whether you have a spouse or not.

And for goodness sake, don’t try the poofy hair look again.
I might give a similar message to my students, graduating in a few short days. Except for the hair part, of course. Also, this: you all are extraordinary people whom I’ve delighted in knowing. Saying good-bye to you, and to students every year, is also bittersweet: I’m happy for your success, and sad that you are leaving. Have a great graduation day. And, if after the ceremony you see someone you barely know crying in the hallway, go ahead and giver her a sideways hug. Trust me, she will never forget you.