Stanford graduate student proves education is important at any age

Like all Stanford graduates this year, Ken Neff, who has earned a Master of Liberal Arts degree, won’t have a chance to don cap, gown and stole for the traditional Commencement. But he and some of his classmates have come up with a novel substitute.

Ken Neff is proof that a graduation ceremony means as much to an adult learner as it does a traditional-aged undergraduate.

Ken Neff (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

Neff, a platform technology architect with a computer security firm, is among the 11 graduates – all adult learners – earning a Master of Liberal Arts (MLA) degree this year. But like other Stanford graduates, Neff won’t have the chance for now to don cap, gown and stole and parade into Stanford Stadium because of restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stanford has postponed its formal Commencement and will hold a virtual celebration for graduates on Sunday, June 14. That celebration won’t be a substitute for the venerable tradition. Stanford plans to hold an in-person graduation when a gathering on campus is possible again.

Disappointment over the postponement is something Neff feels deeply, even though he has already been through two graduations. He earned dual bachelor’s degrees in math and computer science from Purdue and a master’s degree in math from the University of Illinois. But this degree holds special meaning for him.

“This graduation really does matter,” Neff said. “Those degrees were easy. They came before life and kids. This program was something I needed to do for me. This was just pure passion and a lot of sacrifices.”

MLA degree

Stanford’s MLA program offers students the opportunity to pursue interdisciplinary study in the liberal arts. Designed with busy adults like Neff in mind, the part-time graduate degree program holds classes in the evenings and offers a flexible academic schedule. Neff followed his classes with a thesis, A Spets In Full: The Rise and Fall of the Technical Specialist Class in Imperial and Soviet Russia, written under the guidance of Nancy Kollmann, the William H. Bonsall Professor of History in the School of Humanities and Sciences.

Completing the program took him six years. He often studied late into the evening, sharing homework conversations with his youngest daughter, who was not yet 13 when he started. He finished his research at the Hoover Institution archives in the nick of time. The next day, the university began to close down to stem the tide of the pandemic.

“My daughter helped me a ton with perspective,” Neff said. “But I hope I also set an example for her. Education is forever. You don’t have to get a college degree and be done. You have to figure out what matters to you and pursue it throughout your life. For me, that’s education.”

The university’s closing also meant Neff didn’t have the chance to present and defend his thesis to a roomful of supportive fellow students, faculty, family and friends, as is customary with the MLA program. Instead he and other prospective graduates presented via Zoom. The process, he acknowledged, was “rocky” until some of the technical challenges of presenting remotely were nailed down.

“I was at an advantage because I spend my life on Zoom,” Neff said. “Still, I was really, really disappointed not to be there in person. On the other hand, I was shameless in sending out invitations, and I had a big turnout, including former professors from MLA courses. It turned out to be a really good thing, although kind of lonely. I was sitting all alone in a room, with 50 people on the other side, none of whom I could see.”

Backyard ceremonies

Neff said he discussed with fellow students their disappointment over the postponement of Commencement. Traditionally, the MLA program follows Commencement with an intimate presentation of degrees and luncheon for graduates, alumni, family and friends on a lawn beside Memorial Church. The small size of the cohort allows ample time for program director Linda Paulson to describe in detail each student’s work and his or her contribution to a particular field of study. Paulson said the MLA will hold a ceremony once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.

In the meantime, Neff said he and his fellow students have settled on a novel way to celebrate. Several have ordered caps and gowns and plan to hold backyard celebrations with the family with whom they are sheltering in place. Neff said either his wife or daughter will step in as Commencement speaker.

“I’m still working that out,” Neff said. “We just agreed that this really does matter and that I have been at this for a long time. It’s not the ceremony in the stadium I’ll miss as much as the ceremony with the MLA class and with Linda. I was really looking forward to that.”