This past month has seen many graduation ceremonies – at my school and at neighboring universities and high schools in the area – and there will be many more throughout different parts of the world in the month ahead.  For me, the graduation ceremony is always a bittersweet event. It celebrates the accomplishments of my students, but it also typically marks their departure from the Monterey area and the beginning of the next chapter in their professional lives.

The Online Etymology Dictionary defines a graduate as “one who holds a degree.” The website adds that the term comes from the Medieval Latin word gradus, meaning “a step; a step climbed (on a ladder or stair); figuratively a step toward something, a degree of something rising by stages.”

Like many other schools and colleges, our graduations at the Middlebury Institute this year and in 2020 have been conducted at a distance. There was no face-to-face assemblage. No hugging of classmates. No spontaneous cheering. No group photos. No deliveries of leis or huge bouquets.

Don’t get me wrong: The online ceremony was actually lovely. The individual graduates’ photos were shown, along with each person’s name and degree, the flags of one or two countries, and a saying of the graduate’s choosing. And there were some advantages of the online format – such as not having to deal with high winds, downpours, or blistering sun. But most importantly, distant friends and family members who would not have been able to attend an in-person convocation were able to participate and hear the speeches and cheer for their loved ones’ accomplishments. Personal congratulations were shared in the chat-bar.

This experience got me thinking about graduation ceremonies and how they are conducted around the world. I found a website that explained the history of seven graduation traditions. For example, did you know that the traditional gown became associated with the establishment of many universities in the 12th century? Apparently, “since the original universities of the Middle Ages had poor heating, scholars wore long gowns with hoods to keep warm. Since most of the scholars were also clerics, they tended to wear their clerical robes. After all, clothing in the twelfth century was rather expensive.” This same website notes that

Originally diplomas were hand-written on paper-thin sheepskin before being rolled and tied with a ribbon. This practiced ended about 100 years ago when diplomas began to be printed on parchment paper instead, and the sizes were standardized. Diploma covers were developed to protect, store and display the diploma. But the idea of rolling a diploma persists because of this old tradition.

So, if you’ve ever heard a diploma referred to as a “sheepskin,” now you know why.

Another interesting bit of history has to do with tossing the graduation caps (often called “mortarboards”) into the air at the end of the ceremony. This tradition started in 1912 at the U.S. Naval Academy:

Prior to 1912, graduates of the naval academy spent two years as midshipmen and needed to keep their midshipman’s hats to wear. However, in 1912 the decision was made to immediately commission the graduates as officers. The graduates no longer needed their old hats because they would now wear new officer hats. So the old midshipman hats were thrown into the air after the commencement ceremony.

Having gone this far in my investigation, I became curious about graduation traditions in other countries. A website on this topic offers many interesting ideas. For instance, in Sweden, “the parents come to the ceremony with embarrassing childhood photos posted on large signs.” In some Philippine high schools, it is traditional to give the graduates leis when they are given their diplomas. The strangest tradition documents on this website was the claim that in Argentina, “observers pelt graduates with food, including ketchup, dressing, and syrup.”

I was rather dubious about this claim, so I asked my Argentine friend, Pablo Oliva, if it is true. He told me that when students take their last test, “people usually carry food (yerba mate, mayonnaise, rice, flour, and eggs). After you take the test, people start throwing all this food at you.” He also shared this tradition about his own school when he graduated: “Across the Profesorado de Paraná, there is a fountain. Back then, it was customary to be apprehended by your friends and taken to the fountain, where they threw you into the water. The other possibility was to take the newly graduated person and tie him/her to a tree, and leave. Then the graduate had to ask for help from passersby as his friends observed from a distance, shouting their congratulations.”

Given Pablo’s account, I became even more curious about graduation traditions in other countries, and I learned the following.

In Brazil, Lorraine De Matos told me, “the ceremony itself is quite similar to graduations in the US. Butwhat may be different is that the students save up for a year or two to hold a special party, run by them through a third party, and a ball or show is held. Normally the parents have dinner and leave. The young graduates dance and have fun to dawn.”

In Cambodia, according to Virak Chan, the national anthem is played at the graduation. Virak also said, “It has become popular for private schools to invite big government officials (usually the prime minister) to preside over the ceremony and hand out the certificates.”

From Andy Curtis and Liying Cheng, I learned that in Canada, the graduation ceremony involves many of the trappings of the British tradition, but a relatively recent development acknowledges the importance of the First Nations history there. According to a website about Canadian university traditions:

At many institutions across the country, indigenous students are offered the option to forsake the European cap and gown and cross the convocation stage in their own traditional ceremonial dress. This is a poignant symbol of what universities can be at their very best: Institutions that evolve with the best knowledge of the times, while maintaining vital links to the traditions of the past.

From Jo Lo Bianco, I learned that in Australian universities the usual academic regalia are worn for the ceremony, and they designate the graduates’ degrees: “Bachelor, masters, and doctorate degree graduands have a different design within the overall and basic pattern of a black gown usually with a wide scarf, then these are differentiated according to degree level by colour, mortarboard design and other features of braiding, colour and pattern.” Joe also told me that at the University of Melbourne, “There is always music, usually of two or three kinds.  Some kind of instrumental music for calling the audience to attention, then singing of Gaudeamus Igitur, and if the graduation is a long one there is a musical interlude included. This can be classical western music, but I have heard Indonesian gamelan included, and more contemporary singing.” Joe added that the person who presides over the ceremony (usually the Chancellor) is “a person skilled in the pronunciation of names, who reads all names to ensure they are correctly pronounced in the national tradition or personal preference of the individual.” 

My former students, Keyue Song and Xinxin Liu, told me that in China the graduates wear gowns and have the tradition of switching the tassel on the cap from one side to another. A national song and a school song are typically played, and a photo is taken of the class. Keyue added, “Usually undergraduate students will be given two certificates.  One is the diploma, such as BA in Literature, BA in management, etc., indicating that the students have fulfilled all the requirements to get the degree; the other is a graduating certificate, indicating that the students have studied in the school and fulfilled all requirements of the school.  Students who fail to get enough credits or fail in other tests, such as the English proficiency test (CET), may get other certificates indicating how much they have done during their study.”

Yecid Ortega Paez told me that in Colombia, “Some schools have adopted the traditional North American/European tradition of wearing traditional regalia for the ceremony, while others just wear a formal dress or suit. Others use their regular school uniform. (For equality purposes, everyone uses the same so as not show off how much they can afford.) Others decide to wear anything they want.  One recent tradition that has recently been gaining popularity is to use the traditional regalia but with some additions from Indigenous communities’ decorations.”  

As was the case at my school, many recent graduations have been conducted online. Lara Bryfonski shared the following information with me about the first Zoom graduation held at the San Jeronimo Bilingual School in Cofradia, Honduras. She wrote, “Students, families and teachers (calling in from all over the world, many of whom hadn’t seen their students since they were 1st graders!) were able to attend. After a welcoming ceremony, each student was recognized by their picture and a slide with their hobbies and their future goals. Since this is a small school with only one class, these 20 students had been together since kindergarten, so photos could be shown of them together over the years. Teachers, past and present, and families shared memories. It was a touching way to celebrate these students who lost out on a typical graduation, but beautiful to see so many people come together to celebrate them.” 

Giulia Beccarelli told me about some Italian traditions. For instance, academic attire may be worn by professors, “but usually the graduates just wear elegant and very formal clothes.” She adds that these days, it is typical for the graduates to be taken by friends “to tour as many bars as possible, and to be the object of pranks, from funny to cruel, and to be given a laurel crown with ribbons. We receive our degree later (in the mail, so by the time Italian bureaucracy gets to work, it might be months).” Giulia added that “there must be some good quality sparkling wine, and, in my hometown, Parmigiano and Prosciutto di Parma or other quality cured meats MUST be there, or it feels like something is wrong.” She also told me about confetti, which she described as sugar-coated almonds that vary in color depending on the event: “White for weddings, pink or blue for Christenings, and red for college graduations. Large quantities of lose confetti are also distributed to everyone and eaten until we literally get sick of them.”

Mari Morooka shared some Japanese customs with me. She said that high school students usually wear their school uniforms, but special clothing is worn at college graduation ceremonies: “It’s called 袴 [hakama] and girls tend to wear it a lot more than boys. Girls often arrange their hair and put on some hair accessories as well.” Mari also told me that in Japan, high school graduates typically sing their high school songs and the national anthem at the ceremonies. She said, “There’s a traditional Japanese song associated with graduation, which is called 仰げば尊し [aogeba toutoshi] – ‘Song for the Close of School.’ Also, graduation ceremonies are usually held in March in Japan because the school year starts in April. The cherry blossoms start to bloom around the end of March, so they are associated with matriculation ceremonies in Japan.”

Shakina Rajendram told me about graduation traditions in Malaysia. She said the usual academic regalia are worn, but the gowns may incorporate Malaysian designs or materials. For example, she wrote, “ I have seen songketwhich is a hand-woven Malaysian fabric with intricate gold or silver threads and patterns, sewn into some graduation gowns. Many graduates also wear their traditional cultural outfits under their regalia (e.g., baju kurung, baju kebaya, saree).” In addition, Malaysian music may be played on traditional instruments.

Anna Krulatz told me that in Norway, students get diplomas and they dress up nicely, with some of them wearing the traditional Norwegian outfit called bunad. She added, “It is said to be very warm, heavy and itchy because it is made of wool.” There is also a special tradition that precedes high school graduation, called russ or russfeiring. Anna said, “It starts early May and finishes on the 17th. It’s an important graduation tradition that involves specific clothing (russedrakt), in different colors (depending on your high school major). During this senior year, many also put on a review (russerevy) and write newspapers, and some also have a van/bus, etc.”

Anna added some information about a formal graduation dinner for doctoral students in Norway. She wrote, “It takes place in the evening on the day of the defense, and it is usually booked at a fancy restaurant. The doctoral candidate covers all the expenses, which can obviously be quite high (I have heard of people spending 2,000-5,000 thousand dollars), but the expenses are actually tax deductible! There are several speeches, toasts, and courses.”

Rooh Ul Amin wrote that “graduation ceremonies are not that frequent in Pakistan as they are in the US.” When there is a ceremony, students wear gowns, and caps with tassels. He said that the color scheme is usually black, dark blue, or the color of red wine. Traditional foods are served and the university Chancellor will be there – sometimes even the President of Pakistan will attend.  He added that “education minister(s) and distinguished alumni are also invited.”

Elizabeth Palacios and Anthony Acevedo shared information with me about graduations in Peru. Elizabeth said, “At the beginning of the ceremony, students sing the national Peruvian anthem followed by the school’s anthem. Graduates are given a diploma of completion, and outstanding students may receive an additional diploma of academic achievement. A speech is given by the top student in the class.” She added that “in some schools led by local churches, festivals and even processions of saints are organized.”

Tony wrote about graduation ceremonies at ICPNA (the Instituto Cultural Peruano Norteamericano), where he works. Group photos are taken “while refreshments are being passed around by waiters (Coca Cola, Inka Cola, small glasses of wine, a sort of bread stick, little crackers with spread).” Prior to the pandemic, Tony wrote, “Students would approach the on-stage table one-by-one, wearing their caps and gowns. They would take off their caps, we would put a medal on a ribbon over their heads that had the ICPNA logo on one side and the date and commencement ceremony engraved on the back. They later also received an international exam certificate.”

Regarding the universities, Tony wrote, “I understand they usually have a godfather or godmother who provides gifts and refreshments or something for the graduates. They might also add to the title that the ceremony is held in honor of a person who is special to the graduates.”  Tony added that at one graduation ceremony, “I was the godfather. I gave each teacher a small ceramic glass llama in a pouch.”

Leanne Cameron told me about what she experienced when she was working at INES-Ruhengeri in Musanze, in northern Rwanda. She attended the graduation there for undergraduate students and wrote a blog post about the event. Her beautiful reflective post provides details of the ceremony. Leanne said, “There are some pictures and details about what people wear, with different color gowns for each academic group.” She added, “From what I recall, the music, speeches, and performances were very similar to what you would see at any official-type event: traditional Rwandan dancing and drumming, a lot of speeches from local government and religious officials (it was a Catholic university). The students would receive a diploma (once the registrar had cleared that all fees had been paid, etc.).”

Peter de Costa is originally from Singapore. He told me that in graduation ceremonies there, the students “receive a scroll when they walk on stage to shake the hand of the guest of honor. Afterwards there’s usually a small reception in the lobby area outside the graduation hall.”  Peter said, “Because Singapore universities have become very Americanized, there aren’t any unique traditions. The only thing is that it’s not uncommon for the graduates to have very formal (i.e., staged) family photos taken at a studio by a professional photographer. And the framed photo often hangs on the wall of the family home as a source of pride. And, of course, the family really dresses up and the graduate dons the gown while holding the diploma.”

Panjanit Chaipuapae sent me information about graduation ceremonies in Thailand.  She said that in general, for public and some private universities, a member of the royal family comes to the commencement to give out the diplomas: “There are two or three rehearsals before the commencement, as we need to make sure everything is in order in front of the royal family. The ceremony usually takes place inside the university’s hall or if they do not have enough space, it will take place at a private exposition hall outside. Only graduates, professors, and event organizers are allowed inside the hall; the parents, relatives, and friends need to wait outside. The event can take up to 5 days (like my university which has a couple of campuses nationwide). Thinking about a recent graduation, Panjanit said, “It came as a surprise to me that Thai monks come to the event these days and sit on the stage next to the royal family. I remember in my days, there was only the princess and officers on the stage, no real monks, only the Buddha statues and the shrine.” 

Deniz Ortactepe and Kari Şahan informed me that graduations in Turkey are similar to those in the US. You can see a video clips from the Middle East Technical University graduation event by clicking here. Deniz wrote, “Once everybody gathers, the students are called in individually to receive their diplomas. When I was an undergrad, we had a whole university graduation and a School of Ed graduation, and in the latter we received our diplomas. The graduation ceremony is usually a big event like the one you can see in the video but I remember having ‘after parties’ as cohorts. A student rep makes a speech, you get photos taken with your professors, family and friends ,and so on. So it’s pretty much the same actually.” But she added that during the last five years or so, some graduates have started walking with signs that protest the government.

Kari agreed. She said, “One notable tradition at Middle East Technical University in Ankara is that students carry large placards with messages on them. These signs often have (sometimes controversial) socio-political messages on them, often incorporating humor. The ‘best’ ones often make it big on social media at graduation time, and they sometimes cause political scandal or controversy.”

Medadi Ssentanda and Espen Stranger-Johannessen told me that in Uganda, special clothing is worn at university graduations but not in the lower grades. The clothing varies depending on the education attainment level and degree earned (education, journalism, and so on, and masters, PhD, etc.). Medadi noted, “There are no special foods involved, but the graduate’s family would normally organize a party where they invite friends and family members to celebrate. A special meal would be served.” Also, at the ceremony, “there will be music composed in Ugandan languages to congratulate graduates and/or their parents upon such an achievement.”

Thi  Hoai Thu Tran told me, “In Vietnam, we just have graduation ceremonies for university students. For high school students, the high school graduation ceremony depends on each educational institution. Students normally organize a farewell party to say goodbye to teachers and friends before they take the National High School Graduation Examination. They always have some gifts for teachers too. As this party is organized before their exams, no certificates are delivered. These traditions are just in recent years. In my time, we had no parties like this. We just dropped in at the school to get our certificates after graduation.” 

Thi Lan Anh (Anne) Tran had a similar report. She said, “In Vietnam, all 12th graders in a public school often attend a closing ceremony in the hall or on the school ground to encapsulate Year 12 and to say goodbye to their teachers and friends. Here, they often have some formal speeches from the principal, the school captains, and some high-achieving students. Then students will celebrate by joining in dancing and singing groups. Some schools organize a flash mob for all the 12th-grade students to dance along.” You can view some photos by clicking here.

Anne added, “After celebrating as a whole school, students often come back to their classrooms and have a farewell with their teachers and friends in their class. Here they can have refreshments, listen to their class’s music, share past stories and memories.  An indispensable part of this ceremony is to share memory books where they can write wishes for each other. In many cases, students will write their words of love on their uniform. They will keep this shirt as a memory of their friendship.” 

The traditions in Ireland were shared with me by Fíodhna Gardiner-Hyland. There, the graduates and officials wear traditional academic regalia and many photos are taken, including those by professional photographers hired for the occasion. Fíodhna sent me a link to a brief speech given by Dr. Des Fitzgerald, the university president, to the graduates of the Medical School at the University of Limerick. It is a powerful commentary, typical of the genre, both somber and uplifting. The video is only five minutes long, and the beautiful images of the silent lecture halls, vacant lawns, and empty parking lots of the university illustrate and emphasize the isolation of these past several months. Referring to the pandemic at the end of his speech, Dr. Fitzgerald says, “When this is over, come back and we will celebrate this extraordinary graduation properly.” I am sure that many of us share this sentiment.

As you can see, all of these traditions share the feeling that the graduates have taken “a step toward something, a degree of something rising by stages.” No matter what education level is involved, from finishing kindergarten to receiving a doctorate, there is much for the graduates to be proud of, much to look forward to, and to some extent, a great deal of uncertainty as to what the future will hold.

What does any of this information have to do with TIRF?  As you can see from the opening story in this issue of TIRF Today, we have just closed the 2021 competition for the Doctoral Dissertation Grants (DDGs). We will now spend substantial time over the next few months reading, reviewing, and rating the proposals. The specific purpose of the DDGs is to help deserving doctoral candidates complete their research and write their dissertations, so that they too can graduate and move into their future professional roles.

You will have noticed that the word commencement is sometimes used above to refer to graduation ceremonies. The Etymology Dictionary tells me that this term comes from the French of the late 13th century and means “a beginning, act or fact of coming into existence.” Indeed, graduation – perhaps especially at the doctoral level — marks the next stage of one’s career: the gradus, “a step toward something, a degree of something rising by stages.”

Many of the people who have shared their country’s graduation traditions with me have been DDG recipients. I have provided links in the text above so that you can read about their TIRF-supported studies. Other contributors are or have been my students and many are TIRF Trustees or donors. I am grateful to this wonderful community of friends for contributing to this Chair’s Report.

Will you please help TIRF support the aspiring scholars who have applied for the 2021 Doctoral Dissertation Grants? Your donation can go a very long way to help them graduate and realize their dreams. Click here to support TIRF and its future grantees.

Best wishes,