To my knowledge, I am the only person in the hundred-and-fifty-year history of Penn State ever to graduate without knowing it. That was back in 1987. I had just settled into a new sublet in the West End, and after four years of college, I was beginning to get comfortable with my career as a student. My older brother had been in college off and on for six years at that point, and showed no signs of imminent graduation.* We even had a class together – a senior seminar in comparative literature, which we were both majoring in. Things were going smoothly. My only concern was the looming deadline for dropping classes: I couldn’t decide which class to drop. None of them seemed really very strenuous.
One day about three weeks into the spring semester I stopped by my Dad’s office in the university library for some reason. “Guess what?” he said. “You graduated in December!”
“That’s impossible,” I said. “I still need at least three credits in comp lit and a bunch more baccalaureate degree requirements. There must be some mistake.” He dialed the number he’d written down on a little slip of paper. “My son says that’s impossible,” he said into the phone. “It’s the Bursar,” he told me. “He says he has your diploma right in front of him.”
This was already one revelation too many. It had never occurred to me that the Office of the Bursar might contain an actual individual called the Bursar. I had always vaguely assumed “bursar” must be some kind of abstract noun, or at best an omnipotent computer. Picture Maimonides being informed by the angel of death that God was, in fact, an old guy with a beard. It was very disillusioning. In Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, the third definition of “graduate” is “to change gradually.” This was much too sudden.
Over the next couple of days, we pieced it together. It turned out I must’ve checked the wrong box when I sent in the tuition form in August, indicating a desire to graduate that semester. That, combined with the fact that I was nominally an honors student (despite never having taken an honors class, much less signaling any intention to write an honor’s thesis), had set in motion a bureaucratic machinery that proved unstoppable.
A compassionate administrator in the College of Liberal Arts had taken it upon himself to do some creative moving around of credits in order to make up for the missing requirements. Form letters had been sent regarding the December graduation ceremony, but I had pitched them out, assuming it was a slip-up. And of course, unbeknownst to me, a diploma had been generated. On the day I walked into my Dad’s office, he had called about a bill from the university that we had assumed must be erroneous, because it didn’t include the three-quarters tuition break available to all offspring of faculty members.
Dear old State! They were happy to keep processing our checks, but insisted that I must now pay full tuition, as a Continuing Education student. In the process of clearing up the confusion and canceling my classes, I actually got to meet the Bursar, which was pretty exciting, and involved passing through three sets of increasingly more imposing doors guarded by three successively less nervous-looking secretaries. I remember an affable, older gentlemen (no beard), who said he just wanted to meet me, since he was pretty sure this was an unprecedented occurrence. I don’t recall any other specifics of our brief conversation, but I do remember feeling pleased at the attention, and not at all embarrassed. Having satisfied himself that I really existed and that I was going to go quietly, the Bursar extracted my diploma from the bottom drawer of his desk and shook my hand.
It was a mile walk back into the center of campus on a cold afternoon in late January. I headed for the coffee shop in the basement of the Student Union building. I figured I might play video games for a while.
*In fact, he would spend another couple of years as an undergraduate, and over a decade more as a graduate student. Lately he’s been making noises about going back for a law degree.