Graduation Gifts That Pay It Forward

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Updated on May 17, 2013

A little cash to meet the expenses of life after high school is always appreciated, but is soon gone. If you are looking for a graduation gift that will keep on giving, there are many possibilities to choose from.

Gifts that get things started

  • Something that says you believe in the graduate’s dreams, such as a fine guitar or a professional tennis racket
  • Membership at a professional association relevant to the graduate’s career goals
  • Membership at a museum in the area where the graduate will be studying or working to encourage lifelong cultural learning
  • Contribution to a fund to purchase a big item that will help the graduate start a career, for example, a heavy-duty sewing machine or a truck

Kevin Ireton was the editor of Fine Homebuilding magazine for many years and now works as a freelance writer. “My parents gave me a dictionary when I graduated from high school—a big thick copy of the American Heritage Dictionary with a red cover,” he says. “I took it with me to college and to every place I've ever lived since. It has given meaning and clarity to nearly everything I've written. Today, the cover is in tatters, held together with packing tape, but the book still lives on my desk and still gets much use.”

Gifts that give a broad perspective

  • Bus or train ticket for unlimited travel in the United States
  • Trip to Washington, D.C. to see political history firsthand
  • Trip to a location different from the place where the graduate grew up
  • Trip to another country to do volunteer work through organizations such as the Council on International Education Exchange and Global Leadership Adventures.
  • Trip to the country of the graduate’s ethnic origin

Helena Bowman was a teacher for many years and now manages her architect husband’s office. “When I graduated from high school, my parents gave me a trip to Poland so I would understand why I was raised as I was in the USA by immigrants,” she says. “I encountered many firsts—the first time on a ship, train, subway and plane—and saw how others lived and played. I was gone for 15 months and believe that time away taught me more about life, others and myself than I might have learned without that travel experience.”

Gifts that give to the planet

  • Planting a tree in the name of the graduate
  • Membership in an organization such as the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Nature Conservancy, Trust for Public Land or National Parks Foundation
  • Bicycle that the graduate can use to get around campus or commute to work
  • Contribution in the graduate’s name to an organization that provides clean water to countries in need such as Water Aid, Ryan’s Well, Water for Life (A comprehensive list is available at
  • Membership in a CSA (Community Sustained Agriculture) to support organic farming

Mitch Miller is an avid hiker, wilderness photographer and advocate of protecting open space for the enjoyment of future generations. “What got me into hiking and camping was a dad who loved to do it,” he says. “I’d look forward to Yosemite each year, especially waking up in the back seat of the station wagon, ‘Becky,’ with the family, watching bears scavenge through the Yosemite trash dump.”

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