Roughly 3 million students across the country will earn college degrees this spring. Just under another million will complete master’s degrees. At Pace University, where I’m president, we’re awarding about 3,700 associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees, and on Monday we put on a truly wonderful series of commencement ceremonies celebrating our Class of 2023 at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, the home of the U.S. Open.
For much of the year, I’ve been hearing and reading about what a tough moment this is for college students and new college grads. The world is in flux. The employment landscape is unpredictable. We are still grappling with the after-effects of the pandemic, not least in its impact on mental health. And we are all concerned—especially those just starting their careers—that AI is going to drastically reshape the world of work, potentially rendering all sorts of knowledge workers obsolete.
But as I’ve talked with students recently and reflected on their experiences over the last few years—and certainly as I looked out at a sea of eager graduates earlier this week—I couldn’t help but be inspired by their optimism, commitment, and indefatigable adaptability.
Again and again, I was reminded that this group of young people aren’t going to be laid low by the challenges ahead of them. Far from it. These are students who persevered through challenges none of us had experienced in our lifetimes. Those who started four years ago came to college expecting one kind life—they arrived on campus never having heard the words “novel coronavirus”—and now they’ve managed to come out the other side.
Those who plunged in along the way were by some lights even bolder—they took the brave step of diving into a new experience of higher education when the pandemic was already afoot, when they knew how challenging things could be, but didn’t yet know the shape of things to come.
And just think about all the Class of 2023 has been though.
There wasn’t just a pandemic—there was also the devastating economic shutdown that went with it. There were health crises and loved ones lost. There was an emotional and necessary racial justice reckoning. There was a divisive and challenging presidential election. There is ongoing and extreme political polarization. There was January 6. There is the Ukraine war. There is the climate crisis and there are regular weather disasters. There is inflation that is too fast, growth that is too slow, layoffs that are too high, and jobs that cannot be filled. Simply, there is what feels like an endless stream of new crises and challenges.
And yet the graduates in this remarkable Class of 2023 have shown that they can stand up to any adversity. They are an extraordinary group, and they are ready to take on whatever comes their way.
Forbes Leadership00:1201:12\How To Refuel Your Leadership:Align Personal AndOrganizational PurposeThe resilience they built and displayed is exactly what we try to teach all of our students. It demonstrates that kind of critical thinking and lifelong learning skills that make college graduates such successful and sought-after employees. Graduates who can adjust to changing circumstances, can adjust to changing jobs, changing workplaces, and changing careers. Indeed, as AI and whatever technology comes after it will continue to change how we work, the Class of 2023 will be ready for it, because they’ve already learned to be ready for anything.
But more broadly, I also think these graduates, thanks to the unique experience of their college years, now may be uniquely qualified to take on some of the intractable problems that have been plaguing our country and society in recent years. The truth is, the problems of today—and certainly the problems of tomorrow—will not be solved by the thinking of the past. They will be solved by new people, with new ideas, and new ways of doing things. They will be solved by a new generation that is creative and resourceful and adaptive.
And I think this is the generation.
The Class of 2023 was knocked down, and then they stood right back up. They showed they can think on your feet, adjust on the fly, make the best of any situation. They showed they can get to a goal like graduation, even through a once-in-a-century disruption.
They achieved. They will keep achieving. And they will change the world for the better.
When I looked out at our graduates on Monday, I was confident that the future is in good hands.