The Graduation Day Question


It’s that time at universities when faculty have the privilege of meeting the families of students we have known for several years.  It’s a time of celebration, transition, and that “dreaded” question from family members….. “so now that you have a college degree, what are you planning to do with it?”   The implication of course, is that the primary purpose of a college degree is for “job preparation.”

As a parent of a recent college grad, I can certainly relate to the relief (the kid finished!) and the anxiety (now what?) that parents experience.  Most of us parents with recent grads are smart enough not to ask the “now what” question on graduation day.  We know that we will have other opportunities to explore this sensitive issue, especially since most college grads end up living back home for a while.  It is often the uncles and aunts (who don’t see the grad very often) who ask the dreaded question.  This can be a moment of tension and awkwardness, since most graduates really don’t know!

The “now what” question is especially difficult for my students.  I am the faculty adviser for the Sustainable Food and Farming major at the University of Massachusetts.  My students feel called to grow food or be involved in some aspect of the local and regional food system, but often have not yet clearly identified a particular career.  Our recent graduates generally find themselves working on local farms, managing community markets, or interning with non-profit advocacy or community development organizations, while they explore opportunities in the local food system (here are a few examples).  It can be rich and rewarding work – but really difficult to explain to “Uncle Robert and Aunt Sue.”

Inevitably, when Uncle Robert learns that our student transferred from her original major of Biology or Environmental Science into Sustainable Food and Farming, he will look at the graduate with a confused look on his face, and say something like “so you want to be a farmer?”  After a short pause, he then says “Can you make any money doing that?” And finally, “isn’t farming hard work?

Of course, this uncomfortable experience is not unique to agriculture majors.  Any recent graduate who is not a business major or pre-med may be able to relate.

So you want to be an anthropologist?   ….a writer?   ….a community organizer?  ….an artist?    ….a philosopher?”“Can you make any money doing that?”  

Many people have a relatively shallow understanding of the purpose of higher education.  Certainly we should expect college to prepare students to be employable.  But we should expect much more from a college education than simply to be prepared for an entry level job in some corporation or business.  College should help prepare students for both a livelihood AND a rich and satisfying life.

The questions, “what will you do with your college degree?” and “can you make any money doing that?”  are the wrong questions to ask a recent grad.  While certainly understandable, a thoughtful uncle or aunt might consider trying to start a more meaningful conversation with a different question.  Here is the one I suggest…

“So, how do you plan to be of service to your friends, family and community or perhaps the larger world?”

Yes, I suggest Uncle Robert ask his big question not about career or money but about service.  There is plenty of sociological research, native wisdom, and just plain common sense that support the basic fact that people who live for service have more fulfilling lives than those who live their lives to accumulate consumer goods.  This is such a fundamental truth of human existence that the bible quote (Timothy 6:10) “the love of money is the root of all evil” is a cliche.  We all know this to be true, yet Uncle Robert still feels compelled to ask “any money in that field?

So I ask all the “uncles and aunts” and other family members of recent grads to please try to “raise the bar” and challenge the recent grad to be more than just a money earner.  This is your chance to join Plato and Aristotle (really) in placing the human experience within a larger context, which the ancients called The Great Chain of Being.  The chain starts with the divine (God) and progresses downward to the angels, stars, moon, kings, princes, nobles, humans, wild animals, domesticated animals, trees, other plants, precious stones, precious metals, and other minerals.  Get it?   —  This 16th century picture depicts the Great Chain.

Today we understand that The Great Chain of Being as a rough approximation of a natural hierarchy (which I’ve written about here earlier).  The lesson we can take from this powerful visual metaphor that goes back over 2500 years is that all aspects of the universe are interrelated in a specific way.  The short version of the interrelationship rule is “we look up for purpose and down for function.”

That is, the “lower” levels find purpose in the “higher” levels of the hierarchy – but the “higher” levels are dependent on the “lower” levels for function.  As a human, I look for function at the “lower” levels (animals, trees, other plants, precious stones, precious metals, and other minerals).  AND (this is the critical lesson)….. as a human, I look for purpose and meaning in my life at levels of complexity “greater than myself.”  That might be in friendships, family, community, Mother Nature, or perhaps the divine.

This is where Uncle Robert’s big question comes in……  “So, how do you plan to be of service to your friends, family and community – or the larger world?”  This is a question rooted in a deep understanding of human experience (going back to Plato and Aristotle).  It is challenging and respectful….. and much more interesting than “any money in that field?

Why not give it a try with a recent grad?

And finally, congratulations to all of the graduates of the Sustainable Food and Farming major in the UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture!


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my posts.  If you are interested in the major that prepares students for BOTH a livelihood and a rich and meaningful life, check out the Sustainable Food and Farming major a UMass.  Please note that jobs ARE important and I’ve written about finding good work here.

UMass to sign the Real Food Challenge!


The Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, MA has agreed to sign the Real Food Challenge.  This will make UMass the largest university in America (serving about 40,000 meals per day) to sign the agreement committing the institution to assuring that 20% of the universities’ food purchases come from socially responsible farms and food businesses–what they call ‘real food.’

The Challenge was introduced to UMass in January 2012 with a presentation by the Real Food Challenge regional team in our Sustainable Living class.

Following this presentation a small group of students began to meet with university faculty and the Chancellor’s Sustainability Committee to begin to explore the possibility of making this commitment.

The Executive Director of Auxiliary Services and the person responsible for managing food services on campus, Ken Toong (left in the photo), has made a major commitment to high quality, sustainable food, and was an immediate and vocal supporter of the effort.

Students mounted a petition drive, collecting names of other students, faculty and staff who were in favor of the university making a commitment to the Challenge and on May 1, met with University Chancellor Subbaswamy.  According to Sustainable Food and Farming major Molly Bajgot, “the Chancellor was enthusiastic about the proposal and we expect to host a public signing in the fall.”  The actual text of the commitment is linked here

The UMass Student Food Advocacy team of (left to right in the picture below) Rachel Dutton, Ezra Small, Lila Grallert, Molly Bajgot, and Hannah Weinrock, should be congratulated for their hard work and perseverance.

Students in the project earn credit from the Stockbridge School of Agriculture to review invoices from hundreds of food vendors, investigating their commitment to Real Food.

According to Real Food Challenge leaders, “despite a growing interest in local, organic and sustainable food on campuses, little consensus exists on what makes food truly “good”…”  Further, they write…. “the youngest generation of Americans today will be the first in our nation’s history with a shorter lifespan than their parents, thanks in part to the food they eat.  Our food system is driving an epidemic of diabetes and diet-related disease, while also fueling climate change and the loss of our nation’s family farmers. The challenge is there’s just not enough ‘real food’ out there – it’s less than two percent of our national food economy. Fortunately our nation’s colleges and universities are uniquely positioned to address these 21st century challenges and help build a truly healthy food economy. With a combined annual purchasing power of almost $5 billion, U.S. colleges and universities have the capacity to significantly impact our nation’s food system through their decisions. Further, by educating students—our future CEOs,politicians, parents, and (yes!) farmers — we can cultivate the leadership and the ingenuity needed to successfully transition to a healthier, more sustainable food system.”

This student-led campaign is an example of how the University of Massachusetts at Amherst is leading the nation in creating opportunities for small, local farmers and encouraging change in the industrial food system.  Other projects and activities at UMass along these lines are:

  1. The UMass Student Farming Enterprise is a yearround class that gives students the opportunity to manage a small organic university-owned farm and sell their produce through a CSA, farmers market, and to university and private food service and retail markets.  See the video!
  2. The UMass Permaculture Initiative is a unique class and program that has converted underused grass lawns on the campus into edible, low-maintenance, and easily replicable food gardens. See on of the program videos!
  3. Permaculture in the Pioneer Valley is a class, sponsored by the UMass Dining Services UMass Permaculture Initiative that designs and installs permaculture gardens off-campus in local elementary schools.
  4. A celebration of local food cooperatives was sponsored by Sustainable Food and Farming students introducing the UMass campus and students to work opportunities in local foods!
  5. There has been an “explosion” of interest in the Sustainable Food and Farming major, growing from only 5 students in 2003 to over 85 students today.

One of the most important aspects of student education is the emphasis on getting practical experience either with local farms and markets, or non-profit public policy and advocacy groups, and farm-based education collaboratives.  Practical education built on a solid foundation of biological and ecological sciences prepare students to explore creative options and good work Its surely a good time to be an “Aggie.”


Anyone interested in discussing this new major should contact Dr. John M. Gerber, Program Coordinator and Professor.  Many students have found the flexibility of the Sustainable Food and Farming major attractive.  Contact us or check out the major here and some videos presenting courses and topics of interest.