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Commencement: centuries of tradition with a modern twist

Commencement: centuries of tradition with a modern twist

The regalia, pomp and circumstance of commencement have their roots in ancient times. Pitt State's commencement pays homage to tradition with a modern twist.

Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, Ron Weasley and their classmates wore those black robes for a reason. Turns out that Hogwarts Castle was a cold, drafty old place.

There’s no chance of a chill in John Lance Arena this week, but the 1,200 or so graduates at Pittsburg State University’s 113th spring commencement exercises on Friday and Saturday will wear gowns and caps, just the same. It’s a tradition that goes back more than 700 years.

As early as the 12th and 13th centuries, when universities first began to take form, scholars adopted the dress of clerics, who wore fur-lined robes to protect them from the chill. The first American universities imported the use of regalia from Oxford and other esteemed universities in the United Kingdom, where it was already a tradition centuries old.

Almost every aspect of the commencement ceremony has meaning, according to Debbie Greve, PSU registrar, who assists with the organizing the event.

The gown itself says a lot about the wearer. The type of sleeves on the gown and whether it has velvet bands or facing, denote bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral candidates. Hoods, which are reserved for graduate degrees and above at PSU, are faced with colors that identify the academic study the student has completed.

The American Council on Education has developed an extensive list of colors associated with the various academic disciplines ranging from light blue for education; pink for music; and white for history and sociology; to gold for physics and science; and brown for fine arts.

The distinctive mortar board, a fixture at commencement exercises across the country, is thought to have its origins in a hat worn by Italian clergy in the 16th century. At some universities, tams are used to distinguish doctoral candidates and sometimes master’s candidates. Tams are made from velvet and are poofed at the top rather than flat.

Many of the PSU graduates will wear a variety of cords and medallions that indicate academic honors and other distinctions. For example, PSU graduates who are veterans are entitled to wear a red, white and blue cord. Students with academic honors will wear a gold cord, and students graduating magna or summa cum laude will wear a medallion with either a red, green, or white ribbon.

Greve said that although PSU’s commencement exercises reflect centuries of tradition, they are designed with modern students and their families in mind.

“We try to strike the right balance between pomp and circumstance, and a celebration for the graduates and their families,” Greve said.

The latter is why PSU has opted for multiple ceremonies as graduating classes have gotten larger. Having multiple ceremonies is more work for staff, Greve said, but it shortens each and makes it easier to accommodate family and friends who want to share the special day with their graduate.

“We definitely have seen an increase in the number of graduates who participate in commencement and in the number of family and friends who attend and I think that’s in part because there is seating available and they know the ceremony won’t be too long,” Greve said.

In the end, Greve said, commencement is all about the students and their families.

“It is, for many students, the most important day in their college career,” Greve said. “It’s a day that represents years of hard work as well as a whole new chapter that lies ahead. It is also a day to share with families who have supported and encouraged the students throughout their academic careers.”

Other commencement traditions

“Pomp and Circumstance”

The music many people associate with graduation ceremonies is Elgar’s tune, “Land of Hope and Glory,” which premiered in England in 1901 and was first used at a graduation ceremony at Yale in 1905.

Moving the tassel

Moving the tassel on the mortar board to signify graduation is a relatively modern tradition. Typically, candidates begin with their tassels on the right side of the mortar board and move them to the left after degrees are conferred.

Ringing the Centennial Bell

Incoming freshmen at PSU are invited to ring the Centennial Bell next to Axe Library when they first arrive on campus to signify the beginning of their academic career. On Commencement Day, the graduates are invited to ring the bell again to signify the completion of that journey.

Decorating their mortar boards

In recent years, a growing number of PSU graduates have begun decorating the tops of their mortar boards to reflect their academic course of study, honor friends and family or just express their own individuality. Some have become quite elaborate and require many hours of work.

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