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 FiltersFast.com.)
  • 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.”

Gifts that encourage

  • Savings plan for college (529 plan) that can be used for any type of college expense
  • Prepaid college tuition plan
  • Coverdell Education Savings Accounts (formerly known as Education IRA)
  • U.S. Treasury Bond that will mature after graduation from college
  • GPS to make it safe for the graduate to explore a new location
  • Backup hard drive so the graduate knows all that hard work will be safe if the main hard drive crashes
  • Regular emails, notes and care packages

Hannah Maret is on the freshman crew team at Lehigh University. “We are currently in the middle of winter training, which has arguably been one of the most mentally exhausting experiences I have ever had,” she says. Just when the going gets toughest for the freshman team, their coach emails a message from a varsity rower who was on the freshman team the previous year. The messages combine empathy with inspiration. “In a way, these thoughts and reflections are a graduation gift from the varsity girls who we know and respect,” she says. “The pride that they feel as they look back on their freshman season provides us with just the right amount of incentive and encouragement to move forward with ours.”

Gifts that connect

  • Data plan for a cell phone or device
  • Donation to Angel Flight, a program that connects volunteer pilots to those who need transportation for medical treatment
  • Support for the graduate’s participation in student ambassador programs that connect the United States with other countries

When Luke Shearin was in high school, his family hosted a student from China, and, with his family’s support, Shearin traveled to China to return the visit. He is now a freshman at New York University. “The opportunity to learn about this other culture, to make friends halfway around the world, truly shaped my future aspirations,” he says. “We no longer just live in our own one town, one state, or even one country. Rather, we need to look at ourselves as global citizens.” Shearin’s goal is to use his experience to expand the student ambassador program.

Gifts that help others become graduates

  • Contribution to KIND (Kids in Need of Desks) so parents in Africa have the materials and tools to build desks in nearby schools
  • Donation to programs such as Heifer to help families in need generate income to pay for school
  • Mentoring a student in the graduate’s honor or inviting the graduate to mentor a student
  • Donation in the graduate’s name to the school library

Linda Beeman is a writer and real estate agent who has traveled extensively in Asia. She recalls a graduation gift that changed several lives. “About a year after I’d first traveled to Bhutan, my host sounded me out about helping his youngest daughter gain admittance to a college in the U.S. He asked if I could sponsor her,” she says. She decided she could offer $10,000 per year if, indeed, the young woman was accepted at a college in the U.S. Fifteen years later, the young woman is married to an American classmate, has a child and lives only a short drive away from Beeman, who is like a mother to her.

Graduates need space and independence as they move forward into the next chapter of their lives, but they should also be reminded that their family and friends have their backs. The graduation gift is an opportunity to let the graduate know how much you care, so think outside the box. Gifts that give back remind both graduates and well-wishers that the future is as bright as their hopes and dreams.