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Fall Convocation Salutes Tradition With Contemporary Twist

Fall Convocation, one of the happiest days on the academic calendar, is in the books for 2017. Held the night before classes begin, the purpose is to affirm each student’s decision to attend the university, to begin to transfer school traditions, and to build pride.

Like many southern schools, ours takes place outdoors, never mind that late August is almost always oppressively hot and sticky. This year, more than 1,000 freshmen marched en masse to the campus greenway to officially commemorate their entry into the university. They were greeted by waiting faculty, applauding upperclassmen, and a program of short talks from the president, provost, and an alumnus. The student government leader administered the university’s student creed and a music faculty member led the singing of alma mater.

“Convocation” means a gathering. In academics, convocations are held for a variety of purposes from opening the new academic year to awarding honorary degrees. They are a tradition with roots in the clerical processions of the Roman Catholic Church dating back to the Middle Ages.

What I like is that while Fall Convocation nods to the past and rich academic tradition, ours has a definite contemporary bent. It is a strange blend of seriousness set against the casual atmosphere of a summer evening on the campus lawn. The ceremony’s music is played from a smartphone. Faculty no longer dress in regalia, instead, they wear polo shirts in school colors. Students march in matching tee-shirts specially ordered for the occasion. No solemn procession this, instead, students jubilantly and boisterously process to the site singing, clapping, and cheering along the way. But when the ceremony begins, all is seriousness.

Students are silent as their class flag is presented and then listen intently as the president and provost encourage and admonish them to study hard. They earnestly repeat the student creed and work hard to get through the unfamiliar alma mater.

As the ceremony ends, another university tradition is observed. Faculty form a double line through which the new students process. Faculty greet them individually and hand them symbolic tassels in our school colors, blue and white, as talismans to remind them of their goal of earning a degree. Four years hence, students will process through the double-line again, at their commencement, where faculty will congratulate them on earning a real tassel—one in the color of their degree.

From the “tassel tunnel” students arrive the president’s picnic, their first official meal on campus. They are joined by upperclassmen and the picnic quickly morphs into a party with a live band. The evening is capped by fireworks.

Ceremonies are important markers for celebrating key moments in our lives. Weddings, retirements, awards, and funerals mark life’s defining moments. Incorporating the tradition of convocation into the frothy week of freshmen welcome makes a powerful impression that will be remembered long after the foam party or freshman mixer are forgotten. Fall Convocation marks the entry of a student into the next phase of life and plays an important and memorable role in building early and strong bonds that eventually translate into alumni support.

As we pass traditional ceremonies along, it is important to remember that to be meaningful, sustained, and treasured, ceremonies must (and will) be reinterpreted by each generation.