Red stoles symbolize accomplishments of Asian graduates

During the 2018 Red Stole Ceremony, President Bradley shakes hands with a graduate. The tradition celebrates individual achievements and welcomes soon-to-be graduates to Vassar’s alumnae/i community. Courtesy of Samuel Stuart

The Red Stole Ceremony, formerly the Lei Ceremony, is a tradition at Vassar that aims to recognize the accomplishments of Asian and Asian American graduating seniors and welcome them into the alumnae/i community. In addition to a separate ceremony held prior to graduation, seniors wear a red satin stole (formerly a ti leaf lei) when they walk during commencement.

As a first-year, graduation is something that has, for the majority of my time at Vassar, remained distant from my immediate view of the future. But the gap between me and the prospect of commencement shrunk significantly when I attended the first Pan-Asian League (PAL) meeting in April. PAL, a committee of representatives from different Asian-identifying orgs on campus, was initiated by Sandra Yu ’22—current Co-First-Year Representative and next semester’s Vice President for the Asian Students’ Alliance (ASA)—after a Vassar alum contacted the current ASA Executive Board. Specifically, Delia Cheung ’00 reached out to discuss what the Red Stole Ceremony is and historically has been, and what current Asian and Asian American students can perhaps do to ensure that the ceremony will be as meaningful as possible when it comes time for them to put on their own caps and gowns.

Cheung helped organize the inaugural ceremony back in 2000. “I believed that it was important to [recognize] the specific accomplishments of Asian/Asian American graduates,” she explained in an email correspondence. Having served on ASA’s Executive Board for two years, Cheung “[saw] the ways that community was such an important part of students’ lives on campus, especially for students of color.” As a result, she felt it important to establish the (then-called) Lei Ceremony, which was an intentionally community-centered celebration, rather than one that focused solely on individual accomplishments.

During the first Lei Ceremony, held for the graduating Class of 2001, “Asian American alumnae/i were present to bestow an open ti-leaf lei on graduating seniors,” Cheung recounted. “Seniors were [also] given time to reflect and share about their journey at Vassar, to recognize the people who helped them thrive and to help give closure to their own experiences.” In 2017, however, the ti leaf lei was changed into a red satin stole, explained Assistant Director of Alumnae/i Engagement Jane Lu ’17 via a Skype call during the second PAL meeting in early May. Many Asian and Asian American students did not find the lei to be a personally meaningful object in this context, in addition to it potentially appropriating Hawaiian culture. Seeing as red is a symbolically positive color in many Asian cultures, the students at the time decided to settle on a red stole, promptly changing the object of the ceremony after making the necessary arrangements with the Office of Alumnae/i Affairs & Development (OOAD).

Above, the Class of 2018’s red stole recipients pose following the Red Stole Ceremony.
The event is organized by Asian/Asian-American alumni, with input from students. Courtesy of Samuel Stuart.

Cheung expressed complete understanding of this sentiment in our correspondence, acknowledging that identifying a physical object to represent a community as diverse as the Asian and Asian American community at Vassar was and is not an easy task. “The open ti-leaf lei was originally selected for its impermanence, and for its representation of saying both goodbye to the on campus Vassar community, and saying hello to the broader community of Vassar alumnae/i,” she explained. “Over time, some of the story and thought behind the meaning behind the lei was lost,” she recognized, reflecting Lu’s account of the change in 2017.

The red stole has remained the representative object for the Class of 2019’s cohort. However, Lu, who has been acting as a liaison between alumnae and students as they determine the best object for the ceremony, recognized that “red doesn’t necessarily hold the same meaning for different cultures.” She then invited input from present PAL members as to what the object could be. Adding a flower with a symbolic meaning, or simply keeping the red stole, were both raised as suggestions, but PAL has yet to settle on a revised object. Members continue to think deeply about how to best select one, given the vast and varied experiences that constitute the Asian and Asian American identity.

During the call, Lu expressed recognition of the broadness of “Asian” as a constituency, offering the example that even ASA, an org that welcomes all Asian-identifying students on campus, falls short in fully representing all Asian and Asian American backgrounds at Vassar.

When asked to share her thoughts on the revisting of the object of the ceremony, Cheung shared, “Given the complexity of the community, I do not think that there will ever be a perfect object, whether a stole or flowers. [Thus,] I think that it is important to continually engage in reflection about what the ceremony is about, and what objects may be meaningful to the students who are part of the ceremony.”

Both Cheung and Lu, as Asian/Asian American alums, agree on the importance of ensuring current students are empowered to shape the ceremony to be most meaningful to them. They have taken steps to cement student participation in such decision processes. As Lu summarized, alums are “trying to figure out how best to revamp this chapter while keeping this interaction very genuine and making sure things are being done for the right reasons, with [current students’] desires at the forefront.”

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