THE campus is perched on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, but it could be one of a hundred small colleges across the country. Part Midwestern, part Southern in character, it is rural and peaceful. The air at this time of graduation is often sultry. Grain fields stretch away in the distance, but the campus is green and lush, and there is an almost tropical fragrance abroad. Puffballs of milkweed drift across the lawns and attach themselves to the suits and dresses of the parents who have come from all over the country, and even from Australia, and India, and elsewhere, to celebrate their children's graduation.
Family groups and couples stroll along the clifftop watching the barges, with their mother-tugs, huffing and puffing up and down the mighty Mississippi. The river is unpredictable, rising within days to cover little islands, then dropping again to leave them bare and muddily sodden. Like all too many American rivers, it is also chocolate-colored and uninviting to swimmers. The locals say that a swimmer who does venture in, keeping head above water, comes out with ring around the collar.
But for this weekend, the mood among the fathers and mothers, and aunts and uncles, and grandparents, is one of gentle pride. The American dream starts here with a good education, and for some of these families it has not been easy to pay for it. During these festive days, however, the sacrifice seems well worthwhile.
As for the graduates themselves, their mood, like that of many students across the country in 1986, seems purposeful and pragmatic. Some are getting married shortly. Most talk in crisp, businesslike terms about their job interviews coming up, or their internships, or their prospects for further study.
The dormitory rooms are being emptied for the last time. The milk crates and plastic garbage bags in which young America moves its possessions these days are being stacked bulging in the backs of cars and vans and U-Haul trailers.
This graduating class has chipped in for a new stereo for the clubhouse. The legacy to others that follow will thus be that booming, crashing music with the indecipherable lyrics that parents puzzle over with affectionate tolerance.
There are mild high jinks. As one graduate goes up to collect her diploma, she wheels across the stage a wooden duck that has apparently accompanied her to all her classes. Some of the jocks try to throw the college president off stride by pressing rubber balls and metal jacks into his palm as they shake his hand and collect their diplomas. But the president is an old hand at dealing with such good-natured, graduation-day pranks. He palms the objects deftly onto a waiting table.
Underlying all this is a concern that the lives and careers these young men and women are planning should unfold in a world at peace. Students talk about it, and in the little white chapel on a knoll commanding the campus the student chorus sings a hymn: Let there be peace on earth And let it begin with me; Let there be peace on earth, The peace that was meant to be. With God as our Father, Brothers all are we. Let me walk with my brother In perfect harmony.
Of course, ensuring peace is a complex business. There are delicate equations involving throwweights, and missile launchers, and warheads. Agreements are not much good without guarantees that they will be kept and that wily enemies will not cheat on them.
But still and all, it is too bad Mr. Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev could not have been here this past weekend listening to the new generation sing about its hopes for peace.
They too might have joined in on the line ``Let it begin with me.''