As I was making my way up Deer Park Road late Sunday morning, a long line of cars was streaming down toward the Silverado Trail. Commencement Day had ended at Pacific Union College and students and families were off to celebrate.

Leaving Central Valley Hardware last week, I was caught in horn-honking traffic headed toward St. Helena High School’s graduation. Young men and women in flowing white gowns strolled along Main Street, alone and in small groups with friends and family.

As I work with faculty and staff members across the nation, I usually open my presentations by saying they are really in the dream and future business, as students come to our colleges and universities to create the futures they imagine for themselves. The last weeks of May through mid-June are the season for dreams, as high school and college students complete and begin new journeys on the road to their futures.

Carl’s Body Shop co-owner, Cindy Ortega, shared a graduation invitation with a lovely picture of her daughter, Rita, who graduated from St. Helena High last week. Rita was a two-sport athlete and captain of the Saints highly successful volleyball team. A very strong student, inside and outside the classroom, she received several scholarships for her achievements.

Rita Ortega is exactly the kind of student many major universities would want in their first year classes. However, she has chosen to begin her college career at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo, where she will experience living away from home, while attending a California Community College — one of the best values in American higher education.

Carl’s co-owner Randy Blackwood also counted his daughter, Drew, among the SHHS Class of 2012. After several trips to Boise State to visit her sister, Drew has decided to become a Bronco herself and study pre-veterinary science. Reagan Blackwood, a senior Business Management major, is home for the summer and says her goal is to become an entrepreneur. She attended Santa Barbara City College before transferring to Boise along with a best friend.

Franco Sanchez’s bright smile lights up the Safeway meat counter. Franco is completing his associate’s degree at Napa Valley College and will transfer to complete undergraduate and graduate degrees, most likely in Spanish. With his intelligence and work ethic, places like UC Berkeley will be lucky to get him.

Jamie Segoria has worked at The Cameo for most of the years he has been a student at PUC. Jamie’s wonderful artwork has been on display in the theater lobby on several occasions, and he is now planning to complete an MBA in Oregon, after having completed undergraduate degrees in photography and finance. He is brimming with enthusiasm about his future.

In May, my wife Nushi and I had the opportunity to be in attendance as our youngest daughter, Yasi, successfully defended her dissertation and in June as she received her doctoral degree from Alliant University’s California School of Professional Psychology. It seems like only yesterday that our little girl was in elementary school, and now she is Doctor Yasi, providing therapeutic and mental health services to South Asian immigrant families and other clients in Alameda County.

Two weekends ago we attended our nephew’s graduation from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Cyrus is quietly confident as he heads off to L.A. to build on the musical identity he has already created for himself — to pursue his passion and become a producer.

A national discussion rages about whether going to college is “worth it.” Nonetheless, most evidence suggests that degrees still open doors to greater opportunities. Today’s college students are rightly encouraged to pursue their passions. Given spiraling tuitions and increasing debt burdens, however, they also need to think long and hard about their intended programs of study. Students must research future career opportunities, the skills required and the programs of study that will be most beneficial. They must also recognize that it takes considerable time, effort, and hard work to achieve success — in college and beyond.

Like many substantial investments, the benefits of college often take years to yield returns. Higher education must be more than simply a means to getting a good job and making money. It is also about clarifying values, visions, and goals, in order to develop plans that can turn dreams into reality.

In the season for dreams, I advised a generation of my own students: Dream big dreams. Little dreams have no magic. Then go do the hard work needed to make those dreams come true.

(Tom Brown is a St. Helena resident who served as a dean at Saint Mary’s College of California for 27 years. He currently is a consultant and speaker at colleges and universities that are seeking to keep more of the students they enroll. Send comments, questions or suggestions for future columns to: thedean

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