This is your father's graduation

As students and schools say farewell, many cherish or revive age-old traditions

At the liberal University of California at Berkeley, known as the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement, one might expect a tradition-laden commencement to be considered as hopelessly outdated as seeing how many undergraduates can be stuffed into a telephone booth.

But this spring, Berkeley held its first campus-wide processional since 1969, students sponsored a Senior Week for the first time in 42 years, and the Class of '01 raised one of the largest gifts ever: more than $36,000.

Last year, seniors were required to wear gowns for the first time.

"It seems to me there's a return to tradition on this campus," says Jason Simon, the faculty adviser to the Berkeley seniors who planned graduation. "Part of what an institution should be doing is educating students about the importance of commencement. It's a capstone experience. They should be able to look back on it in 50 years and be proud of it. Once they understand the symbolic nature of graduation, they really get behind it."

With the culture becoming more informal and the college-student population expanding to include a wider range of ethnicities and ages, the staid commencement process might be expected to fracture. But if anything, graduation ceremonies nationwide seem to be getting more traditional.

"Despite conventional wisdom about ... the cavalier attitude people take toward ceremonies, I think deep down people want the tradition associated with commencement," says Ronald Bosco, a professor of English at the University at Albany - part of New York's state system - and its commencement grand marshall. "There's no question families want it. For many, it's the first college graduation in their family. This is what people have worked all their lives for their kids to have. But the students want it, too."

The whole is greater than its parts

Diversity on campus may in fact be bolstering commencement traditions, in that such exercises serve as one of the few shared experiences for increasingly segmented student bodies.

Berkeley senior Humaira Merchant, born in Pakistan but raised in California since the age of 4, longed for a return to tradition. She was head of the student group that planned this year's ceremony.

"This campus can be very apathetic at times," she says. "Graduation is something that fosters campus identity and creates school spirit. There's a huge history of tradition that has disappeared over the years. I think it's important for students, as they leave the campus, to realize they are part of something that's larger than themselves."

The return to commencement tradition is perhaps nowhere more striking than at the University at Albany.

A year ago, President Karen Hitchcock decided the school needed to recreate the commencement experience. For more than a decade, the ceremony had been held off-campus in a cavernous, impersonal downtown arena. Graduates were recognized in groups, and the whole soulless affair was over in a couple of hours.

A 17-member task force was convened under Professor Bosco's leadership. It surveyed dozens of colleges and universities coast to coast to determine how they conducted their commencement exercises and to try to find a common denominator around which it could build its revitalization effort. Within a few weeks, according to Bosco, it was clear there was no such common denominator - except for the ubiquitous beachballs that students toss around during ceremonies.

The task force turned the study inward, looking at Albany's own campus culture for its cues. It quickly settled on the need for renewed dignity. Bosco and others on the committee had been distressed to find, in their survey, that many colleges and universities had simply given up on the dignified portion of commencement and given the milestone over almost completely to the celebratory aspect.

"The degree-conferral ceremony marks the end of a four- (or more) year process," Bosco says. "We wanted to create an impression that students could carry for the rest of their lives, that at the moment they received their degrees, something very special had occurred. Up to this year, we had not been able to create that mood."

The task force decided to try several approaches: First, the commencement was moved back on campus and held outdoors. It was expanded from two hours to an entire weekend and included a family picnic, fireworks, and individual recognition of graduates during ceremonies at the various colleges (the latter fulfilling a near-unanimous request by surveyed students). The school also revived a tradition that had languished for a decade: a ceremony in which the senior class passes a torch to the juniors.

"What we saw an hour after commencement, we had never seen before," Bosco says. "There were still, I would guess, somewhere between six or seven thousand students and their families milling around the degree-conferral site, taking pictures, talking with faculty.... It was a complete turnaround from what we've seen in past years where they picked up their degrees, got in their cars and left."

Bosco predicts that the weekend's impact will be long-lasting, effecting "a significant shift in campus culture."


The general return to tradition at many campuses - and the continuation of it at schools whose age-old practices have never waned - doesn't mean that people's individuality is hidden under their caps and gowns, however.

The changing makeup of the student population at colleges and universities and its impact on commencement could be seen in microcosm at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville this spring.

There was Andrew Rich, who graduated at age 32 with his wife and three sons in the audience. He flunked out of the school in 1990, but spent a decade fighting his way back and earning a degree. There was Mazen Baswari, son of Saudi Arabian immigrants, who is legally blind. He crossed the stage with his guide dog, Regan, who was dressed in a cap and gown.

And then there were the unseen. Erin Segal, for instance, earned so many advanced-placement credits from her high school in a Chicago suburb that she graduated this spring after only two years at Virginia. She decided not to participate in commencement ceremonies, since most of her friends are not graduating, and she'll be back in the fall for law school. "I'm proud and all that," she says, "but it just doesn't seem like graduation is an all-culminating event for me."

No online diplomas for these e-grads

There could hardly be a clearer example of non-tradition within the context of tradition than a slice of the recent commencement at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Twenty-two graduates in the Master of Engineering in Professional Practice Program accepted their diplomas from faculty associate Wayne Pferdehirt, alongside hundreds of other engineering grads, in an indoor ceremony. All pretty much routine, except it was only the third time most of the 22 students had set foot on campus.

They are the first at the school to complete a degree program conducted completely over the Internet. The full-time engineers work at companies like Boeing, and are based in places stretching from Washington State to Florida. One student even hails from Mexico. Nevertheless, they managed to bond with the university and one another over the course of the two-year program.

"We were surprised and extremely pleased that all 22 made it to graduation and most brought their families with them," Mr. Pferdehirt says. "I think they feel connected to this place at least as much as the on-campus students, and their presence at graduation proved it."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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