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For many in the United States, this week marks a period of  profound endings and beginnings. The beginning of summer closes out the school year, with graduations closing the door on one level of education and either opening the door to the next or the far scarier world of work.

This week will, for many Cumberland County families, be bittersweet as high school seniors don their caps and gowns and march across the stage to receive their diplomas. Not having had the experience of watching my own child take those bold steps yet, I am still misty-eyed from watching many of the young adults I have known since their childhood prepare for this week. 

I look at them, and while I see the confidence and anticipation they have to move forward to the next stage of their lives, I can’t help but see them as the awkward, yet endearing toddlers I met more than a decade ago. Their transition from rough-and-tumble toddler has not necessarily been easy, but it has been quite the ride.

I look at them and think back to my own senior year in high school and have to think about how different we were. There was not a single girl in my high school class who could have matched the beauty, grace and maturity of the girls I see preparing to graduate. In my mind, we were more awkward, not as confident and definitely not as stylish as the young ladies I know today. We were, thankfully,  a lot more innocent as well.

Our lives had not been shaped by a decade of war, a dismal economy and, as a friend of mine noted, such extreme weapons of mass distraction. We did not have computers on our desktops or iPhones permanently attached to our hands. When we wanted to communicate with our friends, we met them at their locker or spent the night at their house. We didn’t instant message them as we were sitting at the same table. 

If we wanted to write a research paper, we spent hours, days and weeks in libraries checking out books, reading them and laboriously putting together our notes and footnotes. We did not have instant access to information and footnote builders. Some will argue that we worked harder. I would say that today’s kids simply have the tools to work smarter. 

For many of those whom I graduated with, college, sadly, was not an option. That isn’t the case with the graduates who are set to walk the halls. Almost 81 percent of the students who graduated last year pursued higher education, garnering more than $51 million in scholarships. Those numbers speak volumes about our students. It speaks to their understanding of the world around them and their realization that higher education is the key to their success in our global economy.

That being said, it is important to note that as many as 1 in 3 of the students who walk across the stage this week and matriculate to one of the many colleges and universities in our state will not make it through their freshman year, according to U.S. News and World Report. Why? For some, it is a matter of money. For most, it is a matter of discipline. The same technology, that has made it easier for our students to write papers and stay informed, has also made them less focused and more easily distracted. It has, in essence, isolated them, and in that isolation, has taken away the stick-to-it, can-do attitude that older generations have had instilled. 

I am not one to believe all statistics or studies. Instead, I tend to look not at the beginnings and the endings, but all that comes in between. And in the case of many of the young men and women I know, the in between is what is going to set their feet on the path of success. I have watched them grow from giggling toddlers to fearful elementary students to awkward middle school students to amazing young men and women who are donning their caps and gowns. I have seen their hard work in the classroom, on sporting fields and in clubs. For those who will be successful, I have seen the very real family and friend connections that are based not on a smart phone, but rather on in-person, up-close, messy and sometimes heartbreaking, breathtaking moments called life. 

These are the young men and women who will enter college this fall, and in four years, graduate with a degree. Not because they are smarter than their counterparts but because they know that some things are worth the effort. 

They have learned that it’s not always about where or how you start, but rather how to make the best of all that comes after. And in doing so, they have ensured that an ending is just another beginning. Based on what I’ve seen the past decade, I look forward to watching their new beginnings and all that comes between. It’s going to be  a wild ride.

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