Graduation Traditions that Span Past and Present

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By Dawn Handschuh, Marketing Department


Graduation Caps in the Air
Photo credit: HckySo via photopin cc

One of the first of many milestones in a young person’s life, college graduation is a rite of passage marked by numerous traditions, many of them centuries old. While graduates at nearly every college and university will don a cap and gown—itself a centuries old tradition dating back to the 12th century—many of today’s institutions of learning have adopted their own traditions, steeped in symbolism and faithfully repeated year after year.

Sometimes these traditional rituals take place at commencement, while others take place at baccalaureate a day or two before graduation. (Historically, baccalaureate is a nondenominational worship service attended by the graduating class. Baccalaureate affords faculty, graduates and their families an opportunity for quiet reflection that is often accompanied by inspirational music.)

A newer tradition for many graduating students is having their diploma framed, which offers another long-lasting connection to their college experience.

What are some of your school’s commencement traditions? Do these long-established rituals with their rich symbolism enhance the meaning of commencement for you?

Let’s take a look at some of the more interesting traditions at or around commencement at schools across the country.

Click on the schools below to read more about the schools’ commencement traditions.

Amherst College Smith College
College of Charleston Stanford University
Connecticut College Swarthmore College
Eureka College Trinity College
Ithaca College United State Military Academy West Point
Kenyon College Wells College
Randolph College York College of Pennsylvania

Amherst College

Amherst College seniors observe a Class Day tradition that dates back to the Class of 1852. After senior exams are over, the seniors celebrate by marching through Amherst, MA, to professors’ homes to give speeches; the evening is capped off by a communal supper. Design your Amherst College frames.

College of Charleston

One of the few schools that haven’t adopted the traditional cap and gown attire, the College of Charleston in South Carolina, favors simple, yet elegant attire. Women graduates wear white dresses at spring commencement while the men wear white dinner jackets. December graduates wear black: black tuxedos for men and black dresses for women. On their first day of classes, students walk under the arch at Porter’s Lodge (the Greek letters inscribed upon it read “Know thyself”) and then congregate at the Cistern yard, with its ancient live oak trees and venerable buildings. When students graduate in the spring, they again pass through the Cistern yard, symbolically walking under the same arch into the world. Click here to view College of Charleston Diploma Frames.

Graduation Cap and Books
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Connecticut College

At Connecticut College in New London, CT, graduates carry Eastern White Pine saplings as they march at Commencement. The saplings depict the tree on the college seal and symbolize the graduate’s connection to the school. The tradition was made possible by a parent’s endowment to the school in 1993. Click here to view Connecticut College Diploma Frames.

Eureka College

Ivy is also used as a metaphor for bonding and union at Eureka College in Illinois. New students are given an ivy sprig at opening convocation, after which students place the ivy into a basket. Just as the pieces of ivy in the basket will entwine themselves together to become a single plant, so too will the students become one as members of the Eureka community. The symbolic growth of the ivy sprigs into a single vine reappears at commencement in the form of an ivy chain. See Eureka College’s frames.

Ithaca College

Graduates at Ithaca College in New York receive a medallion inscribed with a quotation selected by the school’s president. The quotation used for the Class of 2012 was spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” Click Here to see Ithaca College’s frames.

Kenyon College

Seniors at Kenyon College in Gambier, OH, are “hooded” by college marshals as they wait to ascend the stage and accept their diplomas. The graduate’s degree and any honors bestowed are read aloud in Latin. Click Here to see Kenyon College frames.

Randolph College

Students at Randolph College in Lynchburg, VA, accumulate a collection of buttons which they use to adorn their graduation robes. Buttons are created as souvenirs of different events or to promote various clubs or programs and are often handed out to attendees. Students’ evolving button collections express their personal journeys. Seniors hang their button-lade robes and hats outside their doors so that others are aware of their senior status; the buttons are removed for the actual graduation ceremony. Click Here to see Randolph College Diploma Frames.

Smith College

Living plants also play a prominent role at Smith College’s Ivy Day on the day and evening prior to graduation in Northampton, Massachusetts. Alumnae march with seniors in a parade around campus before the seniors plant ivy, intended to represent the connection between the college and its graduates. Frame selection can be viewed here.

Stanford University

Gratitude and giving thanks is an integral part of Stanford University commencement in California. A “Stole of Gratitude” is meant to be worn by graduates during commencement and afterwards, students can present the stole to a parent or family member, professor or other mentor who supported the student in a meaningful way. Also, performances from the Hoover Tower Carillon is a tradition that can be heard throughout campus on Commencement Day. Diploma frames for Stanford University can be found here.

Swarthmore College

Founded in Pennsylvania in 1864, Swarthmore College’s baccalaureate includes a speaker, several moments of silence in observance of the school’s Quaker roots and an inspirational reading. According to the school’s website, “Baccalaureate is intended to touch upon the moral and spiritual roots of the educational process and encourage commitment to a more just world.” Design Your Frames at this link.

Graduate Walking
photo credit: Scott* via photopin cc

Trinity College

Set into a sidewalk in front of the Northam arch at Trinity College in Hartford, CT, is a rectangular stone inscribed with an Old Testament verse. The inscription, “Let not him that girdeth on his harness boast himself as he that putteth it off,” was part of a commencement address given at Trinity by Theodore Roosevelt in 1918 while World War I raged on. To this day, Trinity students take care never to walk on the stone before graduation day for fear of triggering some event that would prevent them from graduating. See Trinity College’s diploma frames.

United States Military Academy West Point

At West Point in New York, graduating cadets honor and reward “the class goat”—the lowest ranking cadet, academically —with wild applause and a silver dollar donation from every fellow graduate. (Those silver dollars usually add up to about $1,000.) Design Your Frame with West Point Association of Graduates or contact the Cadet Store.

Wells College

The commencement ceremony at Wells College in Aurora, NY, includes various activities such as rides in the original 1869 Wells Fargo stagecoach. Customized frames for Wells College.

York College of Pennsylvania

Graduating seniors at York College of Pennsylvania follow an old tradition of adding their signatures to a huge rock on campus. The rock is painted in Spartan green and students’ names and messages are painted in white. Their words remain on the rock until it’s painted over with fresh paint for the next year’s graduation class.
The faculty and staff of Columbia College personally sign Bibles that are presented to each graduating senior upon commencement. Customized frames for York College of Pennsylvania.

With commencement ceremonies already in swing, it is clear that graduation traditions uniquely celebrate the graduates and the colleges they attend.

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