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Commencement is the Happiest of Days!

I love the peace of campus the Monday after commencement. Everything is quiet, no traffic, no parking challenges, no stressed-out students rushing from place-to-place. Faculty are gone and those of us involved in commencement can enjoy a long, quiet cup of coffee at our desk for the first time in weeks. Campus has the feeling of having been washed clean, much like the tranquility that follows a gentle spring rain.

Commencement is my favorite ceremony of the year. It’s a day when everyone is happy. Parents are proud, significant others celebrate, and graduates are ecstatic. It marks the end of years of work and holds the promise of adventures to come. It tells the world that you are different from the person you were yesterday.

That said, it is undeniable that commencement prep is stressful and can be frantic. Sometimes it’s downright aggravating. There are multiple ceremonies with a million moving parts, each one integral to the success of the whole. Each ceremony has its own cast of VIPs, seating arrangements, speeches, special awards, honorary degrees, and platform participants. Often there are but a few hours to re-set, re-do and be ready for the next “show.”  Our team manages just the dignitaries, a tiny slice of the thousands of people who participate and attend. In the days before, we dog trustees to confirm their plans, hunt for students who’ve forgotten to pick up their families’ VIP seating tickets, follow-up with people who have failed to rsvp, and cajole dignitaries who would rather skip preliminary events.

And commencement day is not a lone occasion, rather it is typically the culmination of other related activities all nested together in a cluster of celebratory events leading up to the big day. At our school, these include a formal dinner at the president’s home for the outstanding graduate from each college and the honorary degree recipients, a nursing pinning ceremony, the presentation of college awards and, of course, student parties. It requires physically moving tons of boxes of diplomas, platform party regalia, instruments and music stands, gonfalons and flags, and the university’s most precious relics, the mace and chain of office.

If I had any doubt whether it’s all worthwhile, that doubt was erased by one of my events office colleagues, a 50-year-old woman who received her master of business administration degree. Watching commencement work its magic on her even though she has helped facilitate for years and has been up to her ears in commencement prep for weeks, was gratifying. We observed with pride as she strode onto the stage, shook hands with the president and practically floated off the stairs. Afterward, she recounted how when the starter told her to go, she was frozen in place, then certain that the reader had said her name incorrectly, and finally, didn’t remember her two-foot-off the-floor dance down the stairs followed by hugging everyone she passed. She had what another colleague of mine calls “commencement face,” that gobsmacked, euphoric look that comes with realizing you’ve just accomplished something amazing. Commencement is the celebration of dreams, hopes, and visions. Like the work it took to get there, it’s definitely worth doing.

Congratulations to the class of 2019 and, in case you were too excited to hear the degree conferral formulary, welcome to the society of learned women and men.

 

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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.