By Dr. Terry Jones
Professor Emeritus of Social Work
Cal State East Bay
I can count on one hand the commencements missed in my 40 years at Cal State East Bay. It isn’t difficult to imagine being on a walker in my 90s and still attending commencement in full academic regalia. Even semi-retired, it is hard to stop participating in something that is both a rite of passage and reaffirmation of society’s highest principles.
There is this overwhelming feeling of joy at commencement. Yes, some of that is the relief of graduates who finished final tests or papers to earn their degrees – but, what I see is the lights turn on for kids in the audience as they watch a mother, brother or cousin cheered across the stage. The university is no longer abstract or distant. It is a place explored by the familiar footsteps of today’s graduates. First-generation college students dream not just for themselves, but for the family and friends that will follow.
College is often spoken of as a continuation of high school or an early step toward a career. This is terribly reductive reasoning and often misses the point entirely. Many of my students came to the CSU after years of struggling financially, supporting a family on welfare, overcoming a divorce or losing a job. These students enter the university insecure in themselves and their circumstances and questioning their potential. Seeing a person develop into a complete and confident human being is extraordinary.
Indeed, this striving isn’t confined to the individual. I have seen the Cal State East Bay community grow and transform itself over the decades. The campus continually creates new pathways for people to move from one “class” to the other. I was honored to be part of setting up a Master of Social Work program. It was a crowning achievement in helping students advance into the professional class and also met a critical talent need for the region and state.
The MSW program, as with so many paths at Cal State East Bay, paves the way for better lives. This promise of a better life is something I share with students from my own experience. I too was a first-generation student who came from humble beginnings to find my way to a better life through education. My family and community continually supported me as I entered and progressed through college – relying on an absolute faith in a brighter future through education to keep going when things got rough.
I see my struggle, along with the struggles of my family and community, mirrored in the experiences of CSU students. I can’t begin to describe the power and beauty of being a guide and mentor to this group of incredible dreamers. It is impossible to imagine a day when I simply stop being their professor. It is now and will always be a fundamental part of who I am.
Editor’s note: For more about Dr. Jones’ life and work, please see Terry Jones: still in the struggle a 2005 profile by Cal State East Bay.