Why We Celebrate Graduation: It's Personal
University commencement ceremonies are rich in tradition and personal significance.

By Alexis Blue, University Relations - Communications
April 8, 2016


The UA will celebrate its 152nd Commencement on May 13 in Arizona Stadium.
The UA will celebrate its 152nd Commencement on May 13 in Arizona Stadium.

An essay published in the 1903 University of Arizona yearbook makes the case that the University and its supporters should favor the custom of students wearing caps and gowns during commencement.

Science instructor B.F. Stacey wrote that the "graduating costume does away with the difference in dress arising from different tastes, fashions, and degrees of wealth, and lends picturesqueness and dignity to the scene."

A month from now, on May 13, the UA Class of 2016 will don traditional caps and gowns like many Wildcats before them and take a symbolic step into the future during the University's 152nd Commencement.

UA graduation ceremonies have evolved significantly since the very first commencement honored a class of three graduates in 1895. That year, rows of simple wooden chairs were set up for guests at Old Main, with the University's then-motto "In Struggle, Reward" emblazoned across the wall.

That scene stands in sharp contrast to today's UA commencement exercises, which draw thousands to Arizona Stadium, where jumbo screens display larger-than-life images of graduates and celebratory fireworks light up the night sky.

Yet, despite how much commencement ceremonies at the UA and nationwide have grown and changed over the years, many of graduation's most time-honored traditions — caps and gowns included — endure.

So, too, does the fact that commencement, no matter how large, is a highly personal event.

"Any tradition, in order to keep being re-enacted, has to have some meaning," says folklorist and UA faculty member Maribel Alvarez, who studies rituals and traditions. "It becomes sort of a theatrical moment imbued with meaning and personal significance."

Most students, therefore, don't think about commencement as an institutional event, but as a personal celebration of their hard work and achievement with their friends, family and loved ones, says Alvarez, associate professor and associate research social scientist in the Southwest Center in the UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

"Human beings need moments of pausing the rush of everyday life, and the predictability," Alvarez says. "All rites of passage mark a special meaning, a special emotion, and it's very functional to have an opportunity to do that."

In the 1995 book "Piled Higher and Deeper: The Folklore of Student Life" — a text Alvarez has used in her teaching — a chapter devoted to graduation explores how commencement has been celebrated across campuses and throughout the years.

Some colleges host 100-day countdowns to commencement, with a number of graduation-themed activities, the book notes. At other schools, graduating seniors leave wills to underclassmen. Some colleges celebrate graduation with a balloon launch to signify students moving upward, while others have held ceremonial bonfires where seniors burn course materials or early drafts of their senior theses.  

But even with variation from campus to campus, the commencement ceremony itself remains very much a traditional event, with many customs deeply rooted in history.

The graduation gown, for example, is inspired by clerical robes and has roots in medieval Europe, when the church oversaw higher learning. The wearing of academic dress in America began in 1754, writes "Piled Higher and Deeper" author Simon J. Bronner. Many years later, in the 1960s, the tradition of adorning mortarboards with personal messages began to appear, as students sought to distinguish themselves from the crowd.

Among other traditional elements found at nearly every college commencement ceremony are graduation speakers, faculty and student processions, honorary degree presentations and the ever-recognizable "Pomp and Circumstance," an excerpt from British composer Sir Edward Elgar's 1901 composition "March No. 1 in D Major." The song caught on at universities nationwide after it was played at Yale's commencement in 1905 in honor of Elgar, who was being presented with an honorary doctorate of music. 

When it comes to those long-standing commencement customs, Alvarez doesn't imagine any radical changes happening any time soon.

"This is a highly traditionalized event, much more than, say, Thanksgiving or even weddings. You have to have the speakers, you have to have the gowns," she says.

"I don't anticipate we will see a lot of change in graduation ceremonies because they're very effective in the way they're designed to carry out the tradition."

Extra info


UA Commencement


Arizona Stadium


May 13 at 7:30 p.m.

Information about the UA's 152nd Commencement is available on the Commencement website.

Information about individual college convocations can be found here.