College Graduation Part 2: A Perfect Celebration

Gilbert and me on steps of Rankin Hall
Here we are, both proudly wearing our caps and gowns.

Well readers, although there was anxiety leading up to graduation, there is only one word I can think of to describe the graduation festivities themselves. Perfect.

     Just hours after checking my grades which officially confirmed that I would be graduating, Mom took me to the Almost There Fair. The primary purpose of the fair was to pick up rain tickets, brunch tickets and a packet with the important information on where we were supposed to be and when on the big day, but there was also a class picture and champagne toast with the president of Carroll University, a tradition for every senior class. This fair was at 4:00 that afternoon. The festivities began at 2:00 with a barbecue, outdoor games and a raffle drawing, but I had a little bit of a headache that morning, so I decided to just come for the main event at 4:00. The original plan was for Mom to take me around to the tables to get the information we needed and then leave since I didn’t think to make prior arrangements to meet up with a friend. But to my joy and amazement, Mom, Granny and I had literally just stepped out of the car when one of my best friends saw me! We met through an american history class first semester of my freshman year and enjoyed each other’s company so much that freshman and sophomore years, we would get together for lunch twice a week and occasionally do other things together like ring salvation army bells. She even came to my house to visit me when I had to miss a week of school for surgery to remove an ovarian cyst. But junior and senior year, school requirements were so demanding for both of us that we hardly ever saw each other. She gladly agreed to take me around the fair, so Mom left me with her and we had a great time catching up. Both my friend and I don’t care for champagne, and usually hate standing for pictures, but we didn’t mind watching the others drink the champagne and just enjoying the president’s speech celebrating our accomplishments. We also had such a good time talking and savoring the beautiful weather that day that even the tedium of positioning 600 students for a class picture went fast.

     After this fair, I made a quick trip to the disability services office just to tie up loose ends for some special accommodations being made for me so that commencement would go smoothly, and then out to dinner at a nearby mexican restaurant that is a favorite of college students, especially on Thursday nights which feature discounted margaritas. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t drink, but the food is awesome too. I had two chicken tacos and one beef taco, each topped with guacamole, and of course, more chips than I needed, but hey, college graduation is a once-in-a-lifetime event right? I think that was the most relaxed social function I ever went to because everyone was in a festive mood, brimming with excitement on the cusp of graduation, and since grades were submitted and all the hard work done, the faculty member that went with us no longer felt like a professor, but an equal. We were all adults now! And just when I thought the meal couldn’t get any better, I pulled out the money to pay for my meal but was told that the communication department had set aside money for this celebration, so it was free! The only damper to the event was that we might have liked to stay a little longer to chat, but when we were done eating, the restaurant more-or-less shooed us out. It must have been a busy night and other people wanted our table. But I guess we were about done anyway.

     Even preparation for graduation was festive. Unlike my high school graduation, this time around there was no need to host a bridal shower and a graduation all in one weekend, no one had just moved out of the house leaving it a mess, the weather was beautiful and everyone stayed healthy. Since I wasn’t used to a party free of these complications, I was at first perturbed when Mom did other things unrelated to the party in the days leading up to it like planting flowers and shopping at the mall for a baby gift for my brother-in-law. But she assured me that this time was different. Everything was in place, and there would be plenty of time to set up tables, make sure caps and gowns were ready to go for me (and Gilbert), and order the food with no stress. She was right. With my high school graduation, I remember staying out of the way as Mom frantically ordered food, but this time around, there was so much time the whole family could come along to Costco and pick out food based on free samples! I think I have mentioned in past entries how eating good food is half the fun of parties for our family? This party was no exception as we went all out! For appetizers, we picked out guacamole, salsa, spinach and artichoke dip, cheese spread and crackers and chips for dipping. For the main course, we picked out some wonderfully seasoned pre-cooked chicken and meatballs and a round steak which my brother-in-law who likes to cook made a fajita seasoning for. And let’s not forget about the usual party standards we all love like pasta salad, potato salad, bean salad and my dad’s famous tomatoes seasoned with olive oil and spices, topped with fresh mozzarella cheese! And of course, it was all topped off with a beautiful chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, cream filling, and a crunchy chocolate mortar board on top! A large chunk of this cake is still in the freezer for whenever the mood strikes me and I want to re-live my graduation via the taste of cake. That evening after a delicious pizza from Papa Murphy’s, I helped cut ribbons which Granny curled around napkins which had plastic silverware rolled in them. Mom also found streamers in my school’s colors which she cris-crossed over all the tables and despite not being able to see, I could tell it was beautiful.

     There wasn’t much time for breakfast Sunday morning as I had to be at Carroll in my dress, cap and gown by 9:15 to line up for a Baccalaureate, a fancy name for a prayer service at 10:00. I had my usual oatmeal, but was too excited about the events of the day to be interested in food yet. From the moment I stepped out of the car and heard the festivities of guests already arriving, felt warm sun and a perfect balmy breeze on my face and heard pretty church bells off in the distance, I just knew it would be a glorious day. In the arrangements worked out with the disability services office, I was assigned a student volunteer, who actually ended up being a classmate from public relations, so I knew her. She stayed with me all day and was such a wonderful help to me, getting me everywhere I needed to be that day that I sent her a thank you note with a $50 Target gift card. The funny thing was, she actually graduates next year, but several students walked up to her asking if she was graduating with me. But she said it was fun to be a sort of unofficial participant in my ceremony to get excited for next year. She found my dad and me right away and took over. There was the usual chaos of a faculty member shouting over a din of chattering graduates trying to get us all lined up, but it wasn’t long before we were all lined up and processing in to the auditorium to beautiful organ music. It was a beautiful service with various students leading prayers thanking God for the education and support we received at Carroll and asking Him to bless us wherever our lives lead us in the years to come. Then ironically, a student named Luke read a parable from the Gospel of Luke, the parable of the good samaritan, after which the chaplain gave a sermon encouraging us to think about how at different points in our lives, we resemble all the characters in this parable. Sometimes, we are all like the man beaten and left on the side of the road, and sometimes while we don’t mean to, we get so focused on our own lives that we ignore those in need, but we should all strive to be like the good samaritan as we go about our lives.

After this, the student volunteer and I met with the Dean of Students to orient me to the stage, and then my dad picked me up for brunch held in the main dining room. Brunch wasn’t as relaxed an affair as I hoped it would be because graduates had less than an hour to eat before we needed to line up again for the official ceremony and the line for the brunch buffet was really long, but it was worth the $20 ticket to eat in the dining room one more time as an undergraduate. After brunch it was back to the auditorium to line up, and seemingly in the blink of an eye, the sound of bagpipes announced that commencement had begun.

     Carroll has a proud tradition of having each freshmen class process in to the opening convocation the day before the start of every fall semester and then process out of Carroll with the same bagpipes as seniors. Unfortunately, my start to freshman year was so chaotic what with getting used to Gilbert, transitioning to the dorm and getting trained with new technology that I somehow missed the freshman procession. Mom got me there in time for the main convocation event itself, but somehow the fact that I was supposed to march in this procession got overlooked. But to be honest, given my nervous state at the time, the weight of these four years of hard work ahead of me, and uncertainty about whether Gilbert and I would actually survive to see graduation given our stressful start, I probably would not have enjoyed it. But I didn’t miss this procession, and as the bagpipe sounded and the student volunteer and I processed in, I felt almost euphoric. Ever since the end of my last final exam, people from my parents to the president of Carroll had been saying “you did it! Congratulations!” But it wasn’t until I was actually processing in to the commencement ceremony that it hit me, that yes, “I did it!”

     Unlike high school graduation when roads were washed out from flooding the day before and even during the ceremony, thunder could be heard outside, four years later at college graduation, rain tickets weren’t necessary. It was the most glorious sunny day you could ask for and in fact, the chaplain announced that morning at the baccalaureate that he was informed there was a 0 percent chance of rain!

     Unlike many of my peers, I always love graduation speeches. Yes, they can be long, but if they would quit checking their watches and listen, they can be very fitting opportunities to celebrate the accomplishment of graduating and be inspired to make a difference in the next chapter of life. The speakers at my commencement were excellent. The keynote address was given by Dr. Howard Fuller, a 1962 alumnus of Carroll who has become a nationally renowned advocate for education reform. The speech had light moments as he talked about his athletic involvement at Carroll and how he injured himself playing basketball the day before his commencement but would not allow this injury to keep him from walking across the stage. But he also talked about how America has shifted away from its values like free, quality education for all and protection of the most vulnerable of our society and how as graduates, we should go out in the world to embrace these challenges and make a difference.

     Then the class speaker, elected by the senior class gave his speech. I was actually nominated to be class speaker. Around the middle of February, all graduating seniors got an e-mail inviting them to nominate someone they think would make a good class speaker. I disregarded this e-mail because I didn’t want to be the one to put one of my friends on the spot by nominating them, and because I wasn’t really involved in campus life and always feel like a stuttering nervous wreck when giving oral presentations. I honestly thought that the odds of someone nominating me were as unlikely as the odds of me being elected president of the United States. But a week later, I would come home from class to find an e-mail in my inbox announcing that someone had nominated me!

     Needless to say, since I never considered the possibility of being nominated, I hadn’t considered how I would respond either. After the first reading of the message, I was just speechless. After the second reading, I was elated that someone had that much faith in me to nominate me for such an honor and was tempted to send a reply accepting the nomination right then and there. Then my brother, a voice of reason who came home to visit that day asked me, “are you sure you want that kind of pressure on your graduation?” Maybe he was right. Graduation is supposed to be a day to bask in the glow of being finished with four years of hard work. Would the pressure of delivering a speech that would forever represent the class of 2012 spoil the day? But then again, it might be worse to decline the nomination but then kick myself the rest of my life, wondering if the class would have voted for me if I had accepted. Thus began two days of mental agony as I wrestled these questions to the brink of a headache. The e-mail was sent to me on Tuesday February 28, and we were supposed to accept or decline the nomination by March 2. On the evening of March 1, when I couldn’t stand my indecisiveness any longer, I decided to bite the bullet and accept the nomination. And then I had to figuratively hold my breath for three weeks until the outcome of the class vote was revealed. As crazy as it sounds, when the e-mail said “the class speaker for commencement 2012 will be…Greg Pateras!” I actually breathed a sigh of relief and cheered, realizing I had scored the best outcome of all. I would die an old lady with no regrets and tell my children and grandchildren that I wasn’t a chicken. I didn’t decline the chance at the opportunity of a lifetime. But I would be able to relax on graduation day and leave the pressure and stage fright to someone else.

     But actually, since he studied to be a teacher, a career that requires daily public speaking to children who can be a tough audience, and since he had done a lot of public speaking for student organizations, he was definitely a more qualified speaker than I would have been. Of course, my family members naturally would have loved to hear the speech I would have given. Inspired by Josh Grobin’s performance of Believe on the Polar Express soundtrack, I had a rough outline in my head of a speech on how our childhood and college journeys ended so quickly it was scary, especially given the economic climate we are entering. But as the song says, destinations (and graduations definitely qualify as destinations) are new beginnings and with our Carroll education, we should go forth with confidence that we have everything we need, if we just believe! But I am sure this speech would not have been as beautiful in practice as it sounds in theory, and we all thoroughly enjoyed Greg’s more light-hearted, impromptu speech with no traces of stage fright apparent to me at all.

     And then it was all over but the walk across the stage, such a fleeting moment but one I will always cherish. But unlike most graduation walks which are only remembered by the graduate and friends and family close to that graduate, my walk across the stage was cherished by the whole audience. Remember how earlier in this entry, I casually mentioned the necessity of making sure caps and gowns were ready for Gilbert and me? Yes, that’s right. Gilbert also wore a cap and gown!

     Here’s the story. The manager of the bookstore absolutely loves dogs, and since his adored lab was old and had to be put to sleep right around the time he met Gilbert, Gilbert held a special place in his heart. So every time we went to the bookstore to get the required materials for a new semester of classes, I would allow some time for this manager to pet Gilbert and we had a good time chatting about our dogs. Well, at the end of my junior year, what started as small talk became the early stages of planning for graduation.

     “So what year are you now?” he asked.

     “I’m going to be a senior,” I announced proudly.

     “Hey, does that mean you and Gilbert will be graduating next year?” he asked.

     “Yes, we are!” I said. After we all, including my dad who was with me, exclaimed over how fast my first three years at Carroll had gone, the manager asked in a mischievous voice, “is Gilbert going to wear a cap and gown?” to which Dad and I laughed hysterically. I had already decided that I wouldn’t mind if Gilbert was acknowledged at graduation. But the thought of him wearing a cap and gown was so silly, and awesome we hadn’t thought about it!

     Then the manager proceeded to tell us that a few years ago, the company that supplies the graduation gowns came out with gowns that were so inappropriately revealing that the administration deemed them unacceptable to wear at commencement.

     “I should see if we kept any of them. With a little altering, I’m thinking one of these gowns would fit Gilbert perfectly!”

     So on February 29, I went to a graduation fair to order my cap and gown and five days later over spring break, I took Gilbert to the bookstore to get measured for his! Then on May 8, after finishing my last final exam, Mom and I walked out of the bookstore with an altered cap and gown for Gilbert, stuffed incognito in to an ordinary shopping bag.

     I knew everyone on campus would love it, but even I had no idea the extent to which everyone would love it! Thinking Gilbert might be uncomfortable wearing a cap and gown all day, my parents and I decided that I would be the only one wearing a cap and gown for the baccalaureate service and brunch, and we would put Gilbert’s cap and gown on just in time for the real event, the commencement ceremony. During the final instructions for how to line up at about 12:30, my siblings tried to walk in and discretely pull Gilbert aside to put on his cap and gown. (Since numerous safety pins were required to hold everything in place, there was no way I would have had time to dress him myself).

     “It was kind of hilarious,” my sister recounted laughing after the party, “here the instructor is giving important final instructions for a dignified ceremony and we come in to dress a dog!” In other words, the popular four-legged graduate was clearly drawing more attention than the instructor, as evidenced by the sound of several cameras clicking, giggles and whispers of “aw, so cute!”

     As usual, Gilbert agreed that he was cute too. I think I mentioned in an earlier entry that Gilbert was originally bred to be a show dog, but was instead donated to the guide dog program? Well, Mom noticed a trace of his show dog personality as my volunteer helped us up to the stage to accept our diplomas. As we were walking through the crowd, Mom said he would occasionally turn his head to look at the crowd, just like a human model strutting down the runway!

     Before I knew it, the voice of a faculty member from the biology department boomed, “Allison Michelle Nastoff, magna cum laude!” Realizing in that instant that all of those late nights, big tests and stressful projects had paid off, and I was actually accepting a college diploma cover, an honor which many never see, my face wasn’t big enough for my smile as I graciously extended my hand. But that wasn’t the end of our moment.

     “We would also like to acknowledge Gilbert, who has attended all of the courses required for graduation.”

     The crowd which had applauded enthusiastically but politely for me, erupted as Gilbert was shown his diploma, a giant bone! I know some blind people ask that their dogs not be recognized in commencement ceremonies, and I respect and understand where they are coming from. The dog didn’t have to write any papers or pass any exams after all. But in my view, Gilbert deserved some recognition because as I would tell a blind freelance reporter and former Carroll alumnus who wrote a newspaper story about the event, Gilbert and I grew together through college. As I mentioned in previous entries, I graduated the training program with Gilbert exactly one week before moving in to the college dorm, so we were both scared freshmen in a sense, adjusting to a new environment, and each other. But by senior year, we were a mature, confident team. I also believe that just because Gilbert’s work wasn’t academic didn’t make it any less important and worthy of acknowledgement. He faithfully guided me to class every day, both the beautiful days and days when he had to shake rain water from his fur or lick paws that got rock salt in them. I will also cherish the countless times Gilbert breezed through the twisty turny confusing tunnel that brought me to tears when I had to practice it with my cane senior year of high school. He slept patiently and without complaint through every course I had to sit through, on cold hard floors that surely made him long for his fluffy bed by the couch at home. And most importantly, his adorable, sweet demeanor encouraged peers who may have otherwise felt uncomfortable approaching a blind person, to come over and strike up a conversation with me, thus forging friendships with people I look forward to staying in touch with the rest of my life. I suppose I could have gotten through the nuts and bolts of college–the lectures, the exams and papers–without Gilbert, but it definitely would not have been as rich and rewarding an experience. So as Gilbert and I returned to our seats and I thought of the numerous people who had high-fived and hugged me saying “congratulations! You did it!” I realized it was time to pat Gilbert on the head to tell him “congratulations! We did it!”

     By the way, Tuesday after the ceremony, I discovered that the alumni office put a video of this moment on YouTube! So if you couldn’t be at my graduation and would like to see this precious joyous moment, go to YouTube and search Carroll University commencement 2012. When I searched these terms, it came up as the first result. It is called “Carroll University Commencement 2012 — Gilbert the Guide Dog Receives Honors, Too.”

     In no time flat, the ceremony ended with the singing of Alma Mater, Carroll University’s school song which is also on YouTube, and a final procession and I was officially an alumnus of Carroll University.

     After the ceremony, my siblings and grandmothers headed home to get ready for the party and greet anyone who arrived early, but as I anticipated, Gilbert’s formal recognition made us celebrities and it seemed everyone wanted our picture! My parents also thought it would be nice to have a picture of Gilbert and me standing on the steps of Rankin Hall where I had many classes. Usually I think Gilbert and I both get tired of having pictures taken, but that day, we were all smiles and wags. For my part, I knew that this was such a special sweet day that I wanted to savor it, even by staying longer to take pictures, and for Gilbert’s part, his tail wags any time someone gives him attention!

     The party that evening was the perfect icing on the cake. Unlike the storms that spoiled my high school party, that night was the perfect evening to be on our patio surrounded by family, close friends and a couple special former teachers. And speaking of icing on the cake, it was a delicious cake which I shamelessly accepted a huge piece of, as I wasn’t going to spoil such a special once-in-a-lifetime day by worrying about calories.

     All too soon, the day was over, my dad had to get ready for work and family had to pack up and fly home the next morning. While there was a little bit of that let-down that I talked about in a previous entry, that “I cannot believe it’s all over” empty feeling, it wasn’t as pronounced as it was after my high school graduation. Perhaps it was because exhaustion won out. I had to work much harder to get through the last semester of college than the last semester of high school. Perhaps it was because I have gotten over my anxiety about the future, realizing that life is a river that always has a way of working out. After my high school graduation, my let-down feeling was largely based on anxiety over college. Will I be able to handle the higher expectations, and the absence of an assistant to advocate for me? But now that I had not only survived, but thrived in the beautiful experience of college that I had been so worried about four years before, I woke up the day after graduation more mature and confident that I could handle anything life threw my way.

     But I think the biggest reason for the less pronounced let-down was the realization that graduation wasn’t only the end of an exciting chapter, but the start of a new one, full of possibilities. Even so, if I could leave college freshmen with one piece of advice, it would be the advice I gave a neighbor girl who started her freshmen year at Carroll as I was beginning my senior year and who expressed dread of her first college class scheduled for 7:00 in the morning. College may seem daunting now, but enjoy these college years, because they will go fast!

Published by Allison Nastoff

As I write this in 2020, I am 30 years old. I am blind, and Gilbert was my first guide dog. He passed away on December 2, 2020, but I decided to keep the title for my blog as a tribute to him because he will always hold a special place in my heart. In 2012, I earned a Bachelor of Science in Communication with a journalism emphasis, and went back to school for a Paralegal certificate in 2014. I worked for five years at a Social Security disability firm. When the pandemic hit, I did some reflecting and decided to resign from this job and take seminary courses. My dream is a career as a teacher or writer where I can be a blessing to others.

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