We Need to Talk About Commencement

Student Affairs / Tuesday, May 8th, 2018

It’s May and that means it’s graduation season once again.  From high school to college at all levels, it’s a time of celebration and success.  It’s a time when we see high-profile public figures give moving commencement speeches and talk about the value of a college degree is renewed.  Having just graduated with a masters degree myself, this graduation season especially stands out to me.  My message here is not to talk about all the great things this time of year brings, however, because there are some very real issues that come with graduation and specifically, university commencement ceremonies.

This hot topic was stirred up when a video of University of Florida graduates (primarily graduates of color) being dragged off stage for taking too long to cross went viral.  It’s a common “rule” to not ‘step,’ dance, or do anything but plainly walk across the stage when your name is read.  These graduates at UF did more than that, but barely more, and were quickly pushed off the stage by ushers.  Haven’t seen it yet? Watch it for yourself:

I can certainly appreciate wanting to speed along the ceremony, but it doesn’t seem like these grads were moving any more slowly than they would if they were walking like everyone else. And I also think the push to speed through commencement and prevent even the slightest showing of personality and celebration has gone overboard.  Of course, the idea that this was specifically only black students is also an issue.  Regardless of that though, the act of rushing students off stage as they are celebrating their accomplishment is in itself problematic.  My own experience with commencement this year reinforced that thought.

Down the road from where this viral situation occurred at the University of South Florida, I sat in a commencement ceremony the same weekend.  I was continuously amazed at how many corners were cut and how little pomp and circumstance was displayed at a purely ceremonious event.  The ceremony I was in was only for masters, specialist, and doctoral degree recipients – which made those us receiving masters degrees look like we were undergraduates.

Only the doctoral candidates paraded into the stadium at the start of the ceremony, while the masters and specialist graduates were already standing at our seats after casually walking on the floor for the past hour.  The importance of the ceremony was sucked out of the air immediately as a result.

Masters candidates were not hooded on stage (we wore our hoods into the stadium) and when it was finally our turn to walk across the stage, our names were read in such a fast succession that instead of walking all we did was stand in line.  I took maybe 5 steps after my name was called before I was stopped and standing behind the graduate in front of me, right in the middle of the stage.  There was constantly a line of 5-10 (or more) graduates on stage at any given time.  This once again ruined the moment and prevented us from proudly walking across the stage which is the whole point of participating in commencement.

Moving on, let’s talk about the cost vs. benefit of the whole thing…

$130 for regalia to wear during the ceremony – not optional – that has to be bought from the university’s approved vendor to make sure it’s all right is ridiculous.  The cap and gown – and the hood – can not cost near that much to make.  The idea that the company partnering with the university is profiting off our achievement doesn’t sit well.  It’s the reality of higher education, and it’s still not acceptable.

It would perhaps be worth the money a bit more if throughout the entire ceremony itself there weren’t signs of the university still trying to get more from us.  First, any pictures taken have to be bought.  At USF, digital downloads alone cost $100 and you get 3 pictures.  Two headshots and one with the president, that take less than 5 minutes to capture combined.  Additionally, we don’t receive even a degree holder because they sell those and want you to buy one instead.  Not giving the actual degree that night is understandable; grades aren’t yet posted or finalized.  But to not give us anything at all when we cross the stage (that we have to pay more money for), is simply not right.  It’s like we haven’t spent enough money getting the degree up to this point.

Okay, so what’s the point?

Realistically nothing major is going to change, but if there’s any hope of even small change, it starts by talking about and naming the issues that exist within commencement.  Graduates deserve to celebrate, show personality, and not be gouged for money throughout the entire process of preparing for and participating in commencement.   I also recognize not all university commencements are the same – my undergraduate commencement was far better than the one I just experienced and not near every university reacts to students celebrating on stage the way UF did this past week either.

What should commencement ceremonies look like? What is an ideal ceremony for you?

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