How Does a Graduation Ceremony Work?


Brief History of the Traditional Graduation Ceremony

  • Most societies recognize the rite of passage, when a person enters a new stage in life. Marriage is a rite of passage, and graduation from high school or college is also a rite of passage. Most ceremonies honoring this new stage of life include rituals. The traditional graduation ceremony includes marching to Pomp and Circumstance No. 1 by Sir Edward Elgar, who inspired the music when he received an Honorary Doctor of Music degree at Yale in 1905. Princeton followed with the music in 1907. Soon, the tradition caught on throughout the country. The mortar board and gown have a long history, dating back to medieval clergy and European universities. In 1895, American institutes formed the Intercollegiate Commission, which standardized the academic dress. Today, students still march into the auditorium wearing the cap and gown and marching to Pomp and Circumstance.

The Graduation Ceremony

  • Whether it is a high school or college graduation, the faculty usually marches into a gymnasium or auditorium ahead of the graduating class. College professors wear their academia clothing while high school teachers mostly wear professional clothing. Once the faculty sits, the processional begins with Pomp and Circumstance. The audience stands as the graduates enter. The class is guided in by class marshals, who direct them to their seats and guide them when to sit and stand. After the procession, most schools play the National Anthem and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The principal of the high school or the president of the college will welcome everyone to the ceremony. The president of the class will also welcome everyone. The salutatorian gives the salutatory address near the beginning of the ceremony. Most schools invite a guest speaker, who may be a politician, a former graduate or a teacher, to address the class. The valedictory address, given by the highest-ranking student, usually is prior to the presentation of diplomas. The high school principal or the college president presents the diplomas or degrees. Students may then shake hands with school board members or other faculty. This process gives students a moment when the stage belongs to them. Large schools may not give out individual diplomas but mail them to the students. After the presentation of diplomas, there is either a charge to the class or a farewell speech. Students then move their tassels from the right to the left, a symbol of rite of passage from student to graduate. Most ceremonies last 2 to 3 hours, depending upon how many graduates there are, the length of speeches and how many musical selections are performed.

Rite of Passage

  • The rite of passage has three stages: separation, transition and incorporation. The student's journey is similar to these stages. For the graduate, separation is during the struggles of school, transition is the ceremony process, and incorporation is "turning the tassel." The ritual of graduation adds a touch of melancholy and pride to the rite of passage. Parents watch their children pass to a new stage of life, and graduates feel satisfied in their accomplishments.

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