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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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Ceremonies Connect Past, Envision Future

For a person who plans ceremonies, there is nothing to compare with a royal wedding! On Saturday, I was up early, fixed a pot of tea with fresh scones, strawberry jam and whipped cream (the closest I could get to clotted cream in northern Alabama) and glued myself to my computer to soak in every detail of Harry and Meghan’s big day. It didn’t disappoint.

The ceremony was modern as befitted the bride and groom yet filled with traditions representing both of their heritages. The significance of the day was beautifully expressed through hundreds of symbolic details that tied past to present. Meghan chose to wear Queen Mary’s Diamond Bandeau Tiara which featured a brooch that the queen had received on her wedding day in 1893. Meghan carried a bouquet that had snips of myrtle from The Queen’s garden, just as other royal brides before her. Harry and Meghan’s rings were formed from a nugget of Welsh gold, following a 100-year tradition that was established by the late Queen Mother. The service incorporated not only traditional Church of England hymns, but songs from the African American gospel tradition in salute to Meghan’s heritage. Now known as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, the couple took a celebratory ride through Windsor in an open carriage built in 1883, the same one that has been used for numerous royal weddings.

All of these highly meaningful expressions of tradition were juxtaposed against a moment in time that was anything but traditional. Who could ever have imagined the archbishop of Canterbury presiding in St. George’s Chapel alongside the African-American leader of the Episcopal Church? Not too many years ago, an heir to the throne would have been denied permission to marry a commoner, let along one that is American, divorced, and bi-racial. Marriage was for securing alliances, and marrying for love was not done, yet that is exactly what happened on Saturday.

Ceremonies and the traditions expressed through them, bring order and meaning to the passages in our lives. They separate time and announce publicly that who we were and who we are becoming, are two different things. Meghan and Harry would be just as married if they had forgone the elaborate ceremony and eloped to Las Vegas for a quickie service officiated by an Elvis impersonator. But ceremonies, whether they are weddings, commencements, inaugurations, military promotions, or funerals tie us to our roots and help us move forward to embrace life’s next phases. When witnessed by relatives, friends, and others, our support network is signing on to help us achieve success.

In academia, May is synonymous with commencement, a ceremony that announces to the world that students have completed their studies, have closed a chapter in their lives, and are ready to join the ranks of educated men and women.  Like the royal wedding, commencement embraces traditions that date back to other centuries. The highly symbolic regalia, faculty colors, and the grand procession with its presidential mace and medallion, all harken to the Middle Ages. But like the wedding, today’s ceremonies have also evolved modern modifications, building on the solid base of tradition but interpreting the occasion in the context of our era. We no longer hood students individually but this does not lessen the hood’s symbolism. Technology using computer bar codes lets us project graduates’ names on jumbo screens and while each name may or may not still be read from the podium, mom and dad treasure the iPhone photo they snapped when their child’s name appeared for all to see.

Ceremonies and traditions are an important part of our cultural fabric. They let us all know when something truly special is taking place. Modifications occur naturally with the passage of time, but as long as we incorporate them respectfully and meaningfully, they blend with cherished traditions to paint richer, more relevant ceremonies that ensure our celebrations will continue to have memorable meaning for generations to come, just like Meghan and Harry’s very special day.