Commencement: Are You Ready for the Pomp and Circumstance?

For many college students and their parents, the finish line is in sight.  Commencement is here, or at least just around the corner.  Students have worked hard to reach this final moment.  Parents have been patient (most of the time), have supported, have worried, have encouraged (most of the time), have paid tuition again and again, and everyone has probably had moments when they wondered if this time would ever come.

But the season of Commencement is finally here, with all of the ceremony and pomp and circumstance that accompany it.  Most college students have experienced a high school graduation, which may or may not have been as formal as college Commencement.  Some students, and their parents, may be wondering what to expect, and what the experience will be like.

What happens at Commencement?

The format of commencement may vary according to the nature of the school, the size of the class, the weather, the location, or the particular traditions of the institution.  Some ceremonies are very unique, however, many factors may be similar no matter where the ceremony occurs.

Commencement is the capstone experience of the student’s academic career.  It is generally a dignified, formal occasion and marks the formal action of conferring and receiving academic degrees.  Degrees are conferred on the candidates by the presiding officer (usually the college president) after they have been recommended or presented by another official (often a dean or provost).

Graduates usually wear caps and gowns and faculty members dress in formal academic regalia.  Commencement may begin with a procession led by a marshal, the platform party of officials and speakers, the faculty members, and finally the candidates for degrees (students).  Students may or may not receive diplomas individually, usually depending on the size of the institution and the graduating class.  Sometimes, individual diplomas are conferred at a separate ceremony held by school or discipline.

There are almost always speeches at Commencement – several of them.  There will usually be a keynote speaker, who may be granted an honorary degree by the institution.  Some of the larger or more well-endowed institutions may be able to afford to invite someone well known to be the keynote speaker, but at every institution, the speaker is usually someone quite accomplished.  There may also be one or more student speakers, perhaps the valedictorian, salutatorian, or class orator.  It is an honor to be asked to speak at your Commencement.

What does all of the regalia mean? 

There’s usually a lot of pomp along with all of the circumstance of commencement.  Many of the traditions associated with the ceremony and the academic costume stem from the medieval universities of Europe.  Most scholars at that time were also clerics and wore their formal “robes”, often for warmth in the unheated halls of the institutions. Later, in 1895, representatives of institutions met and adopted a code of academic dress which would reflect the history of higher education.

The traditional gown is different depending on the degree held by the faculty member.  Bachelor and Master’s gowns are usually black with bell-shaped, pointed sleeves for those with Bachelor’s degrees and long, closed sleeves for those with Master’s degrees.  Doctoral gowns have velvet down the front and three bars of velvet on the sleeves.  These doctoral gowns may also be colorful, with the color indicating the school from which the faculty member received their degree.

Along with the gown and traditional cap, faculty members wear hoods, with the length of the hood also indicating whether the wearer holds a Bachelor, Master, or Doctoral degree.  The colors of the hood indicate both the degree held and the institution granting the degree.  The velvet edging of the hood indicates the academic discipline and the satin lining of the hood indicates the institution.  So it is possible to look at someone dressed in academic regalia and determine the degree held, the discipline in which the degree is held, and the institution from which the person graduated.

Here are a few of the more common hood edging colors:

Education –                 Light blue                    Fine Arts –       Brown

Arts & Humanities-     White                          Engineering –   Orange

Law –                           Purple                          Science –          Gold

Business –                    Drab                            Medicine –       Green

Library Science –         Lemon                         Music –            Pink

Nursing –                     Apricot                        Philosophy –    Dark blue

Physical Education –   Sage green                   Theology –       Scarlet

Veterinary Medicine – Gray

The traditional mortarboard or cap worn by graduates and faculty members has a tassel.  At some schools the color of the tassel may indicate particular honors.  Candidates for degrees wear their tassel on the right before receiving their degree and move it to the left following receiving their degree.  At some schools all of the graduates move their tassels at the same time, at other institutions, each graduate moves their tassel as they receive their degree.

At most graduations, the participants process in formally to the music of what is generally known as “Pomp and Circumstance.”  Almost everyone recognizes the tune.  The selection is actually a portion of a longer piece written by composer Edward Elgar for King Edward VII of England in 1901.  Elgar was later granted an honorary degree from Yale and the piece was played at that ceremony as the graduates processed.  It was soon adopted by almost all institutions as the “theme” for graduation.

If you’re going to Commencement . . .

If you are planning to attend Commencement, perhaps the two best pieces of advice are to dress comfortably and to arrive early.  There will be crowds and everyone has the same idea – arrive early to get a good seat.  Plan to arrive early and spend a good bit of time in your seat. Commencement ceremonies are often quite long – especially if each graduate will receive a diploma individually.  Depending on the venue, you may need to be prepared to walk a long distance from where you park, and perhaps spend time in the sun – or even the rain.  Some institutions hold their ceremony indoors, some use a tent, and some are open-air affairs.  There may be a change of location if the weather doesn’t cooperate.  Be prepared – stay flexible – and try to relax and enjoy the occasion no matter what.

If individual graduates are called to the stage to receive their diplomas individually, there will usually be an official photographer who will capture the moment of the handshake, so don’t worry if you’re not able to take a picture from where you are sitting.  You’ll usually have an opportunity to purchase a picture later.

Whether or not you have a background in the meaning of all of the academic regalia or the pomp and circumstance of the occasion, commencement is a wonderful time for proud parents and proud students.  Remembering that this is a formal ceremony marking the end of the college career (and the commencement of a new phase), will help you to appreciate the occasion and allow you to settle in and enjoy and celebrate your student’s accomplishments.

Related articles:

College Commencement’s Coming, Is Your Student Ready?

Parents: Write a Commencement Speech!

Whose Responsibility Is It to Find Your College Graduate a Job?

Gift Ideas for Your College Graduate

It’s a Special Season for Parents: Graduation and Gifts!


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