The beat of African drums managed to distract us from the heat of the day as we danced our way from Thunderbird Headquarters to Symphony Hall. It was the party that every Thunderbird strives towards, constantly envisions throughout their entire time in the program, and remembers for the rest of their life. It was Convocation Day. After two years of studies and dedication, we had finally done it. I had finally done it. We were graduating.
My parents had flown out that morning to watch me make my way across the stage in a black cap and gown that would normally be too hot for a Phoenix summer, and they weren’t the only ones. The room was packed with the family members of all the graduates, and cheers could be heard around the whole auditorium as every single graduate found his/her seat. The room was buzzing, and it was finally time to start.
In came the flags.
The procession of flags was established years ago as a way to further celebrate our international identity, and students jump at the chance every year to be selected for the honor of standing up and representing their country at convocation. Fun facts were shared about the country that corresponded with each flag presented, including historical tidbits, cultural insights, and meaningful poetry, and the room was enraptured.
Then Ukraine’s representative approached the stage.
After the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, the world has turned to watch the country fight for its continued freedom and independence, and as Thunderbirds, of course, we’re no different. The cheers were deafening as Svetlana, a Ukrainian student representing her country’s flag, stood for five extra minutes to allow the crowd to die down. My dad is also proud to say that he was the first to stand up from his seat, leading to the entire room’s standing ovation.
Then came the speeches, awards for both students and faculty, and finally, it was time to walk. One by one, we all rose from our seats, signed the Thunderbird pledge, and walked across the stage to receive our fake diplomas, which had everyone smiling and laughing as they sat back down. Some people were crying, most were beaming, and everyone felt accomplished.
I will admit that it was more emotional for me to walk across that stage than I initially thought it would be. I’ve never been a “fan,” if you will, of graduations; most of the ones I’ve been to have bored me and seemed to drag on for years. But Thunderbirds know how to make everything fun. It also struck me that I’m the 7th (and potentially the last) Thunderbird in my family, and my grandfather, the 1st Thunderbird out of all of us, passed away before he could watch me make that walk. He was so proud that his first grandchild decided to follow in his Thunderbird footsteps, and he asked about my studies and the people I met every time we spoke during his final year of life. For that, part of me walked for him. For every Thunderbird, in my family and all over the world, who came before me as I took my place as one of the “newest batch”. And what a group of people to be welcomed into.
If I thought the Thunderbird network was strong as a student, it’s nothing compared to what I’ve experienced since becoming one of the alumni. I have witnessed fellow graduates connect to other alums and land jobs all over the world. I have seen how a simple “Hi, I’m a T-bird too” can open doors for people and lead them to the careers of their dreams. I have seen lifelong friendships and even sometimes love blossom at networking events and meetups. We are Thunderbirds, after all, and we beat our own drums as we proceed out into the world.