Why Students Should Host Graduation Ceremonies

I’m taking a brief break from my #ProgressivePedagogy series to share a thought on graduation ceremonies. This post is the product of thinking through representations of race in film, award presentations and acceptance speeches at yesterday’s Oscars, and what I’ve learned from The New Education. I’m currently assisting as a fellow in a graduate class with Professors Cathy N. Davidson and Racquel Gates called “Mediating Race: Technology, Performance, Politics, and Aesthetics in Popular Culture,” and cannot help but notice that graduation ceremonies would be far more enjoyable and momentous if students hosted them.

Imagine with me, for just a moment: we could incorporate videos of students’ crowning achievements; learn more about the histories of those who came before us and where we ourselves come from; honor the influences, mentors, and genealogies that we claim; share our situated, cultural knowledge(s) and what we are currently working on; mourn the loss of classmates, professors, and staff members who are no longer with us; listen to the creative power of student-authored poetry and music; celebrate our contributions to society and our ambitions for the future; and provide one another the support we need to face the world.


The alternative? Keep doing more of the same…

At my high school graduation, I remember hearing a speech given by an invited guest, a total stranger to my graduating class. All I remember from his speech is what he didn’t say. He didn’t seem to know anything about us, and he didn’t mention the death of one of our fellow students who should have been sitting with us. I was in chorus my senior year and so was this student, who came to school and kept singing and fighting death to the very end. We went to the funeral, held on a school day, and our best singers sang “Ave Maria” which resonated so beautifully within the church walls it brings me tears to remember our loss even today, 14 years later.

I cannot think of a better way to make a graduate feel smaller than sitting her between thousands of bodies all dressed in the same loose robes to render everyone almost featureless, all watching a talking head on a massive jumbo tron that only Big Brother could have invented. That’s what I remember from my college graduation. There’s a picture of me from that day somewhere in my mother’s house: I’m turning for the camera and barely smiling, having been ushered through the line so quickly that the tassel hanging from my cap is still in motion, swinging like a brush across the velvet blue curtains behind me. I remember cringing in line waiting to hear if the speaker would mispronounce my name–the only two words in the ceremony that applied directly to me. That speaker had all of the power in that moment and could take it from me with the slightest mistake.

I’m embarrassed to remember my Master’s graduation. I didn’t want to go just to sit in a room dressed as a wizard, like the punch line of a joke, feeling as unimportant as ever. I had to take off time from my first full-time job to be there on borrowed vacation days not yet earned. I had to pay to rent the gown and give it back. That was enough to deter some of my peers from walking. I had paid my way through out-of-state tuition, worked while earning my degree at break-neck pace, and lived with my grandparents, commuting 90 minutes each way to school to save on rent. I was burned out, in debt, and the second name on an endless list of names that would be read for hours that felt like days. I think I brought a crossword puzzle with me but that day is so unremarkable I can hardly remember it at all. I was ashamed not to be sitting with the Ph.D.s–saved for last for having achieved the most–which is what I really wanted. All I remember from the speeches was being told that I should donate money to the school. I had already given the school so much money and so much of myself I couldn’t help feeling bitter.

Now I plan to graduate with my Ph.D. in 2020, and I don’t know if I have the willpower to sit and wait for hours to see if my name will be pronounced correctly or not. I cannot agree so easily to join in a ceremony that is structured to devalue the important contributions of graduates who will make or break our future.

Instead of honoring the few and excluding the majority of brilliant individuals in a graduating class, rather than have one token student give one speech or read a poem, and instead of talking heads boring everyone to groans and glances at watches ticking more slowly than ever…

Imagine a graduation ceremony organized by the graduates themselves. Imagine a real celebration: a comedy sketch that helps us boldly laugh in the face of a terrible job market; a musical performance that showcases the talents of our Music program; a drag race from the Theatre department; a short reading by a future Pulitzer Prize winner; a video from Digital Humanities on the story of climate change told through a  GIS map; an experiment demonstrating the listening preferences of female zebra finches; a presentation on the psychology of single mothers as told through Instagram; a critique of toxic masculinity embedded in dating apps; a talk and toolkit about innovations in teaching useful to future educators; data on the brokenness of the New York subway system and a plan of action for how we could make the subway more accessible in the next 20 years. The possibilities are endless! 


We are so much more than our names swimming in a list of names. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, in addition to reinventing higher ed, we also reinvented the graduation ceremony? 

Photo credit: 123RF