A graduation is the term given to a ceremony and attendant celebrations marking the conferring of certifications upon people who have successfully passed a given course of study. Most modern graduations are based, at least in part, on centuries-old European forms. Today’s graduations award degrees, diplomas and certificates on those who have earned them. Candidates for graduation are known as graduands up till the moment their degrees are confirmed, and graduates, thereafter, although many institutions use the word ‘graduate’ for both categories. Celebrations may include award ceremonies, religious services, parties and receptions; the graduation ceremony is often called a convocation or a commencement (a beginning).
Although it is the award itself that has ramifications for a person’s job prospects, earning ability and even social standing, the graduation fulfils the human need for celebration, recognition and reward, and graduations are an important rite of passage for younger candidates.
The verb ‘to graduate’ is quite broad, and one can graduate from, for example, kindergarten, from trade school; from petty crime to hardened criminal, or from occasional to habitual drug use. This article will concern graduations from high schools, colleges, and institutions of higher learning. (Depending on country the word ‘college’ may mean either a high school level, or university level education.)
Elements of a graduation ceremony
The parts and order of graduations vary between countries and even among institutions in the same country. Some basic elements are common to all graduations. These are:
- Academic procession
- Formal presentation of the candidates for graduation
- Conferring of degrees
Forms of dress
In a high school graduation, students either wear their best clothes, or prescribed styles. Some schools require that boys wear suits and ties, while girls wear long white dresses, others use a simple cap-and-gown: The ‘cap’ a traditional hat known as a mortarboard, while the gown is a long robelike garment.
University graduations almost always require academic dress: cap and gown (robe), or cap, gown and hood. Other elements of regalia are birettas, top hats, Tudor bonnets, copes, capes, sashes and swords.
It is customary for the school’s instructors (known variously as masters, dons, professors, teachers, lecturers and other terms), led by the official who will represent the institution when conferring the awards, to enter in formal procession, usually to musical accompaniment (the ‘Processional’). The processional music is important, as it should convey the solemnity of the occasional. Processionals may be hymns, iconic national songs or the school song. In US graduations, Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No 1, known elsewhere as Land of Hope and Glory, is often used at graduations.
The graduates may process in after the teachers, or may be already seated. In some institutions, alumni who are celebrating anniversaries also process under their class’ banner, in reverse chronological order (with the oldest class usually getting a rousing cheer) and are followed, last, by the current graduating class.
Typically, the proceedings begin with a greeting or welcome, a hymn, the national anthem, the school song, or any or all of these. A native (indigenous or traditional) dance or greeting may be included. There may or may not be a Master of Ceremonies to introduce the participants in each part of the ceremony. A benediction from the school’s chaplain or an invited cleric is often included here, or just before the dismissal.
Formal presentation of the candidates for graduation
A representative of the school, or of the division under which a degree or certificate to be conferred falls, salutes the officiant and affirms that the graduands have satisfied the requirements of the diploma, certificate or degree.
Conferring of degrees
This may happen at the time of the presentation, above or at a separate part of the ceremony. Normally, an ordinand’s name and the certification she is receiving is called out, she walks across the stage (depending on school custom she may also salute the school officiant), is shaken by the hand and receives her degree (or a symbolic piece of paper representing a degree which is to be forwarded later). Where the class is large, there may be only one symbolic presentation, or the ceremony may be split, with the actual conferring of degrees taking part on different days, or concurrently at different departments, or at the graduates’ houses. Additional elements of the conferring of degrees may include the graduates standing and ceremoniously moving the tassels of their caps to the other side, and/or tossing their caps into the air in jubilation.
These depend on school custom, but usually an outside speaker will congratulate and inspire the graduates and at least one graduate will speak on behalf of the graduating class. Speakers may be:
- Valedictorian (the top-ranked graduate, especially in the United States)
- Salutatorian (the second-ranked graduate)
- Keynote Address (US)/Occasional Address
- Vote of Thanks/Response by a representative of the graduating class
- Other speeches depending on school custom, such as a humorous speech, speeches from the winners of special prizes.