How my 3-year-old son helped me graduate from Princeton

TheGrio's Natasha S. Alford didn't expect to go viral after her son joined her on stage at her master's degree hooding ceremony. But then her school dean did something unexpected that touched the hearts of many who understood the sacrifices parents make for their dreams and the affirmation children need.

Source: Princeton SPIA/TMX
(Source: Princeton SPIA/TMX)

When I brought my 3-year-old son Julian with me onstage at my Princeton School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) graduation last week, the last thing I was thinking about was going viral.

No. My mind was consumed with thoughts that most toddler moms are thinking of when we have our babies in public:

Is his shoe tied tight enough so he doesn’t trip?

Did he eat enough food between breakfast and now?  I hope his Dad gave him a snack …

Speaking of snacks, are there any crumbs on his face? Let me wipe that ash off right in the corner … 

This is motherhood in a nutshell. Always thinking steps ahead so you aren’t caught unprepared. So your child always has enough.

But of course, deeper questions were also running through my mind like:

Is he showing signs that he’s actually comfortable stepping onstage in front of hundreds of people?

Does he understand the significance of this moment?

At his baptism at First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem some years ago, my little boy fell asleep as most babies do but woke up right as Pastor Mike Walrond put oil on his head. Instead of crying or thrashing at the sight of more than a thousand churchgoers smiling back at him, this child looked up at everyone … and waved.

They say pandemic babies are different!

Still, that was then and this was now. If my son indicated for a second that he didn’t want to go onstage, I was sending him right back with his father in the audience to play on the iPad.

This moment however was an opportunity that may never come around again. To stand onstage at Princeton University, the Ivy League campus that was his playground and my academic asylum for the past year. A campus whose very early presidents once owned enslaved Black people.

A campus that is part of a larger academic universe wrestling with questions about diversity, inclusion and equity, fending off attacks from organized groups who want to eliminate programs that recruit and support young people of color on their educational journeys, in a country that once punished enslaved people with death for daring to read.

The author Natasha S. Alford at her mother’s master’s graduation in the early 2000s. (Photo courtesy of Natasha S. Alford)

By the time my son is 18 years old, higher education and the world in general may look very different. The very idea that women can work outside of the home, prioritizing education and careers is a point of protest for some, even in 2024. Much to-do is being made of birthrates dropping in a society that wants people to be parents but doesn’t easily sustain the village that parents need to raise children.

And so I thought perhaps, on graduation day, my son seeing his mother hooded with her master’s degree might be a core memory that normalized the pursuit of knowledge for this young child.

This is just what we do. Getting a degree is special, but it isn’t something too special for you. In this country. In this skin of yours. You can.

It was the same way I felt at 15 years old when I watched my mother earn a master’s degree after working a full-time job as a schoolteacher and taking classes on nights and weekends. She had been the first in her immediate family to graduate college, and my father never had a college degree.


I never understood why she constantly seemed so stressed and worried, but of course, now I know why.

Attending graduate school or even working outside of the home as a mother can mean having your heart divided in many places, with your head pushed to its maximum limits.

School is a privilege.

I’d been accepted to a policy school in 2012 — then childfree and single with few responsibilities — but I turned it down for fear of the same student loans that crippled my own mother’s credit.

Thanks to Princeton University, this past year I got to earn a master of public policy degree for free, a rare blessing in a world where investing in your education can sometimes feel like a price you pay for the rest of your life.

Yet this year taught me that I was probably done with going back to school. I had nothing more to prove to myself or anyone else. It was time to put this new knowledge to good use.

The author with her family at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) master’s hooding and awards ceremony in Princeton, NJ. (Photo courtesy of Natasha S. Alford)

And so this it seemed would be a last shot for a little boy who came from a family of first and second-generation college grads to physically take part in his mother’s educational journey.

And maybe if it didn’t amount to all that, it would just be a cute photo of us together.

Do you want to come with Mommy for my graduation or do you want to sit with Daddy?” I whispered to my son, holding his tiny hand, straightening his light green polo shirt and khaki shorts before we marched down the aisle at McCarter Theater.

He looked up at me with his bright almond eyes, crowned by his brown afro, nodded yes, and then we were off to cross the stage with the rest of my classmates, and a sprinkle of them who also brought their adorable children onstage during hooding.

Then, of course, came the unexpected moment, when Princeton SPIA Dean Amaney Jamal asked my son if he wanted to hood me with my master’s sash and he nodded yes; to which she then hoisted him up for all to see.

The tears I held back were as much for the gesture she offered as they were for how challenging the past year had been: managing classes, a book launch, part-time work, lupus, a sick parent and the sacred commitment of family.

What Dean Jamal did for me was pure mother’s instinct.

She lifted the load. Letting me know that motherhood and parenthood was no burden or “situation” to downplay, but a gift to be celebrated.

She saw my child and his ability, showing him by example just how to put a crown — even if it was a sash — on own his mother’s head.

And now, of course, I get to look forward to reminding him of the many crowns he’s capable of wearing throughout his life. Whatever he chooses to pursue, I will be there in the crowd cheering for him, the way you all have cheered for our family with your kind messages from around the country.  

My hope is that we cheer for all of our babies this way, so they too know that excellence is their legacy to inherit.

Natasha S. Alford is VP of Digital Content and a Senior Correspondent at theGrio. An award-winning journalist, filmmaker, and TV personality, Alford is author of the book “American Negra: A Memoir” (Harper Collins). Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @natashasalford.