With one fancy piece of paper, your identity changes.
The ornate lettering and signature from the university president is your cue: You're no longer a student; you're now an alum.
But even though a diploma makes it official, it can take a while for the alum status to truly sink in. The campus that you've learned to navigate blindfolded still feels like your territory.
It's not until you make your first visit back that it fully sinks in: Life at this place you've called home for four (or maybe more) years has continued while you were gone.
Thousands of new students have claimed the territory, and you're not one of them anymore.
You're an alum.
Every time I've gone back to my alma mater, the University of Maryland, the campus seems to have changed more each time. Some differences are subtle, like a new traffic pattern or logos on the athletic fields. Others are glaring, like the construction site where the Maryland Book Exchange used to be or the empty field that holds only the memories of the demolished Knox Box apartments.
The changes prompt a feeling of stodgy nostalgia, and I find myself wagging my finger and preaching about "back in my day." It is a bit unsettling to see an institution that played such a formative role in your life transform.
I spent my very first night in college — and many others after — at a Knox Box party. Many of those nights ended with a group of friends wandering/stumbling arm-in-arm to Ratsie's, satisfying our drunk munchies (aka drunchies) with deliciously greasy pizza.
But Ratsie's is gone now, too, having closed this month after about 30 years in College Park.
Then again, there are many things that are still the same.
Freshmen are still packed into the north campus high-rises, McKeldin Mall still floods with students for 15-minute periods between classes, my roommates' and my initials are still carved into the sidewalk outside our old house.
Those things will probably evolve or disappear eventually, too. But I'm realizing that's just another part of the college tradition. Because for all of my landmarks and staples that have shifted in the two years since I graduated, all of the other alumni who came before me have seen even more change.
Those alums have mourned the loss of the bar affectionately known as 'Vous, basketball in Cole Field House and more.
But their time at the university, and their memories of it, have built the foundation for what current students enjoy — even if that experience is different from ours.
The same goes for any other university. Colleges are based heavily on tradition, which can make change especially difficult. And the harsh shift from student to alum can be unsettling. (The donation solicitation before you've even finished paying off your student loans doesn't help.)
However, as cheesy as it may sound, no new buildings or changed policies can take away your memories. You're always going to have a connection to your school, just as the people who came before you and the ones who will follow.
Because the cycle just keeps going.
Ellen Fishel's column appears regularly in b.