The Senior Send-Off

Before Cap and Gown

At 9 a.m. sharp on the day before graduation, Mount Holyoke College seniors and alumni gather along the shaded lanes of the Massachusetts women's college for the "Laurel Parade."

Wearing white dresses and carrying a chain of laurel, the women march by class rank to the grave of founder Mary Lyon, where they sing a hymn. The tradition dates to 1900, and also commemorates suffragists who wore white while campaigning for the right to vote.

Some 3,000 miles away, in Pasadena, Calif., seniors at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) take a slightly different approach each spring. They celebrate their pending graduation by creating elaborate, techno-puzzles to keep mischievous underclassman running around campus while seniors ditch school for a day.

Each year, before a cap is adjusted or gown zipped, seniors across America participate in traditions like these that dance around the edges of commencement.

Whether running amok in public fountains or singing solemn old favorites in a canoe, students rally around school and friends one last time before heading into the "real" world. The fun and high seriousness both reinforce institutional loyalty.

"The role of traditions is to provide the glue that carries an institution forward into the future," says Frederick Rudolph, professor emeritus of Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. and author of "American College and University: A History."

Commencements in the New World got their start in 1642 at Harvard College with nine "commencers" - and an audience of ministers, Indians, residents, parents, and "gloating familiars," writes historian Charles Wagner in his 1950 work: "Harvard: Four Centuries and Freedoms." "The people made it a holiday of annual joy in learning," writes Mr. Wagner.

Marshaling all their technical skills, seniors at the Caltech have since 1931 created their puzzles, called "stacks," in hopes of stumping or appeasing underclassmen. The seniors' goal is to prevent their dorm rooms from being trashed when they return from senior "Ditch Day." (Also by tradition, any senior found on campus during "ditch day" after 8 a.m. will find him- or herself duct-taped to a tree.)

Among this year's top stacks was "The Rock" - the namesake of a blockbuster movie with Nicholas Cage - in which the undergrad team had to wind through the steam tunnels under Caltech to "defuse" rockets containing a "nuclear" payload of bubble bath beads. School officials play down the ritual, saying it's not technically connected with graduation - even though held within a few weeks of the ceremony.

Other traditions are more serious. Some even go beyond the graduates themselves. At Marist College, a liberal-arts college in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., a 34-year tradition celebrates those who supported the 600 "nontraditional" adult undergrads along with about 500 graduate students.

In a rite that brings tears to the eyes of onlookers, the college awards "P.H.T." degrees - "Putting Him/Her Through" to the spouses or other loved one who supported a continuing education, or graduate student. The ones receiving the P.H.T. wear the cap and gown of the "real" graduate. They also get a P.H.T. diploma.

"You don't know whether to laugh or cry," says Tim Massie, a Marist spokesman. "It's very touching and means a lot to the families of these seniors. " Recipients, he says, include husbands, wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, moms, dads, friends, and sometimes bosses.

A little less reverence, please

Other traditions have fewer years under their belts and are a bit less reverent. "Fountain Day" was started in 1989 at Ithaca College in Ithaca, N.Y., by an exuberant graduating class president.

As the name implies, soon-to-be-graduates gather during the last day of classes. At 4 p.m., the president of the class leads a lemming-like charge down the sidewalk and into a fountain outside the performing arts building. About 500 seniors - some in wet suits, others in business suits, still others carrying rubber rafts and water toys - spent about an hour or so this year screaming, yelling, and splashing.

"We don't really endorse this particular ritual," says Dave Maley, a spokesman for the college. "But it seems to be something the students enjoy and we're working with them to ensure their safety."

Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, takes a different tack, offering "senior disorientation" days - a series of events that includes a dinner given by the wife of the president, actually a crash course on etiquette. Then there's the exhausting dash up Trinity's 166-foot bell tower called "The Last Tower Climb."

Fun as they are, such traditions often serve an important role in the life of the academy, observers say.

"Many seniors [at Trinity] live off campus, have jobs, and are focusing on academics," says Carolyn Wheat, a university official. Senior disorientation alleviates stress and "brings them together" in a way that classes alone do not, she says.

Dr. Rudolph of Williams College sees a serious side to the frivolity that builds loyalty. "People engage in these activities knowing that it's been going on for a long time," he says. "It's the kind of stuff that goes into creating graduates who come back 50 years later - who also get upset if their favorite tradition is not being applied."

It's just this sort of "stuff" that administrators hope will help fuel intense loyalty among graduates of tiny Marlboro (Vt.) College. Its seniors, by tradition, decide on an odd-ball gift for each to give the college president. It began in 1983 or 1984 (no one is quite sure) with eggs - the president received several dozen. Other years he got ping-pong balls or clothespins attached to his graduation gown.

In 1993, Marlboro's commencement was threatened with a Wizard-of-Oz-like disaster when graduates pinned the president's gown with so many helium balloons he appeared in brief danger of making an unplanned departure. Another year Hawaiian leis nearly buried him. This year it was Monopoly money.

Enduring slight hazards is a ritual at the University of Chicago, where a tradition exists about which few details on its origin are known. Every year on the night before graduation, seniors reportedly sneak out to prowl the roofs of the gargoyle-bedecked buildings in which they've studied. One graduate says he was surprised that what he thought was a little-observed tradition brought "an amazing number" of seniors.

Marching, marching

Back at Mount Holyoke, graduates past and present conclude their Laurel parade by singing "Bread and Roses," a hymn about the historic 1912 strike in Lawrence, Mass., by women fighting for fair hours and pay. Wafting across the lush hills of South Hadley, Mass., come the strains of 21st century women sing the travails of women from a bygone era: "As we go marching, marching in the beauty of the day,/ A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,/ Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,/ For the people hear us singing Bread and Roses! Bread and Roses!"

* Send comments to: claytonm@csps.com

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