Commencement and its varied, storied ceremonies digitize

Julián Aguilar/The Miscellany News

As online classes come to a close, students and administrators across the world move onto the next unprecedented challenge: online graduation. Commencement addresses, for example, can be moved to a virtual format with relative ease, as shown by former president Barack Obama’s televised commencement address to all 2020 graduates ceremony on May 16. Harder to adapt, though, are the graduation traditions involving personalized interaction. Despite the challenge before them, organizers of this year’s affinity ceremonies have risen to the task.

The Office of Alumnae/i Affairs (OAAD) recently sent out an email detailing the graduation ceremonies to be held over Zoom on Friday, May 22 and Saturday, May 23. What follows describes some of these traditions’ origins, meanings and ways of adapting to virtual Commencement.

Baccalaureate

This ceremony with historical roots dating back to 1432 at Oxford University was revived at Vassar in 1991 by the Council of ALANA Seniors. A Christian ceremony in origin, Vassar’s service today celebrates multiple faiths and is open to all graduates and their families. According to the Vassar Council of ALANA seniors and baccalaureate book of 1990-2018, Vassar’s ceremony originated with an emphasis on the African American church experience. Today, it continues to center spirituality and experiences of students of color (Council of ALANA Seniors 2018-2019, The Twenty-Eighth Annual Baccalaureate Service, 05.26.2018). According to Senior Associate Dean of the College Ed Pittman ’82, who has assisted students to organize the ceremony for around 30 years, the service typically features African drumming and dancers performing a rite of passage, an address by a prominent speaker, a welcome by the president, student speeches and performances, and a senior tribute by a professor, with the purpose of celebrating faith and academic achievement.

This year’s address will be delivered by Vanderbilt University Associate Professor of Ethics and Society Stacey Floyd-Thomas ‘91—an organizer of the inaugural ceremony in 1991, which featured guest speaker Reverend Jesse Jackson. “During this unprecedented time it is important to continue these traditions, though through online and virtual platforms,” Pittman described.

The Kariamu Drummers and Dancers of Danbury, CT perform at last year’s Baccalaurate service. Courtesy of Samuel Stuart/Vassar College.

Kente Cloth Ceremony

Managed by the African American Alumnae/i of Vassar College, this commencement tradition is now in its 31st year. The tradition originated in 1990, the year Vassar witnessed trailblazing activism from the College’s Black student community. “A coalition of student groups—led by what is now known as the Black Students Union— took over Main Building and demanded more openness and accessibility from the administration, and that more of the college’s resources be committed to the development of the intercultural diversity of the student population,” said Dennis Slade ’91, who is one organizer of this year’s event. “The ALANA Center, Bayit House, and Blegen House were results (direct and indirect) of that bold protest.” That year, a Black Student Union (BSU) member informally bestowed kentes—fabric composed of interwoven cloth strips, which had been purchased by an alumnus—upon Black graduates as they rose to receive their diplomas. The tradition became institutionalized the following year, with a BSU-supported committee.

Current graduating seniors participating in the ceremony received their kentes by mail. As these seniors don them in a virtual ceremony, they join the African American Alumnae/i community. The ceremony will take the form of a Zoom webinar, and will feature performances by the student organization UJIMA and statements from any graduate who wishes to speak. According to Pittman, the ceremony “honors the history and legacy of Black alumni.”

Red Stole Ceremony

The Asian, Asian American, and Pacific Islander Alumnae/i of Vassar College organize the Red Stole Ceremony, formerly the Lei Ceremony, which was first held in 2001.

Identifying alums present seniors with a red satin stole (formerly a ti leaf lei), which they wear when they walk during graduation, and the opportunity to say a few words of reflection. This year, stoles have been mailed to seniors wishing to participate. “This ceremony aims to recognize the unique experiences of the Asian American and Pacific Islander graduates,” Delia Cheung Hom ’00, an organizer of the inaugural ceremony back in 2000 as well as this year’s event, said of the tradition’s purpose. “While this community is very diverse, we felt that it was important to hold space for members of this community to reflect on shared struggles and celebrate collective triumphs.”

The event is usually held the day before Commencement, a less accessible time for non-student attendees compared to the new Zoom format. “One opportunity presented this year is that the ceremony will be more accessible to current students, family members and other alums of the college,” Cheung Hom shared.

Sarape Ceremony

The Latinx Student Union (LSU) will host its second Sarape Ceremony, which recognizes the successes and experiences of Latinx community members, with alumnae/i and faculty; sarapes have been mailed to identifying seniors.

LSU members Mari Robles ’21 and Euguene Lopez-Huerta ’20 expanded upon the origins and procedures of the Sarape Ceremony, the newest addition to affinity org traditions. “The Latinx ceremony started last year as a student-run initiative,” shared Robles. After observing the Kente Cloth and Red Stole ceremonies, LSU paid for last year’s sarapes with their own budget, but now the tradition has been institutionalized. “It was only recently that students began coordinating this ceremony with the Office of Alumnae/i Affairs and Development,” said Lopez-Huerta. Pittman noted that Latinx-identified students began wearing sarapes during Commencement in the mid-1990s, but has now become a formal affinity ceremony. The College now covers all costs associated with the ceremony. Robles emphasized the importance of widespread inclusion and acknowledgment, saying, “We want to include every student of Latinx background, regardless of whether or not they are in the org.”

Last year, the opening and closing remarks of the Sarape Ceremony were read in both English and Spanish. “We hope to show Spanish-speaking family members, mentors and friends that they have a space at Vassar,” said Robles. Graduates choose a person, often a professor, mentor, friend or family member, to bestow them with a sarape, and receive a small gift from LSU. Prior to the event, graduates submit a short biography with their major and org affiliations, and a statement detailing why they chose their bestower, to be read during the ceremony. “We always hope to include the large community that supports students throughout their undergraduate journeys,” said Lopez-Huerta, as “families, friends and mentors…also deserve special recognition during this momentous celebration.”

In the webinar-style event planned for the Sarape Ceremony, students will receive the sarape from someone living with them, and CIS will caption the ceremony instead of providing a translator. “Many aspects of the original ceremony cannot be recreated in an online platform,” admitted Robles.

However, she and Lopez-Huerta were quick to relay the encouragement they received during the planning process and their excitement about additions to the ceremony. “There is so much support for this ceremony and a drive among many of us to give the seniors a ceremony they deserve,” Robles said. Lopez-Huerta added: “Zoom ceremonies are all the rage right now!” Latinx alumnae/i have been invited to the Zoom event, as well as professors that students requested. A notable Latinx alum is scheduled to speak. Students and faculty, Lopez-Huerta among them, will host the event, opening with a photo slideshow.

Lavender Graduation Reception

The LGBTQ+ Lavender Reception is sponsored by the LGBTQ+ center, which has arranged for lavender cords to be sent to interested graduating seniors “who identify as queer, questioning, and allies to the queer community,” per the Vassar Commencement web page. This year’s Lavender Reception will be MC’d by Eddy Quantum ’19 via Zoom. Organizers of the event described via their Instagram, “Although the virtual reception cannot take the place of our on-campus event, we hope that this space will provide you with an opportunity to reflect on your years at Vassar while celebrating all your accomplishments and achievements, both academic and personal.”

Continuing Legacies

All organizers stressed the importance of keeping traditions alive during these trying times. “The original idea of a Latinx graduation ceremony would not have happened without this class of graduating seniors and it is imperative that we keep this new tradition going,” said Robles. Lopez-Huerta concurred, and spoke to the value of the ceremony to him personally: “It means a lot because I still hope to celebrate my accomplishments with my friends, professors, and family… Although we must all acknowledge the impacts of COVID-19 as more than mere inconveniences, it is also important to adapt with the resources and networks we still have.”

For her part, Cheung Hom highlighted the importance of social connection under quarantine. “I hope that traditions like these that connect alums and graduating seniors will allow for some special connections to be made in an especially challenging time,” she wrote.

Slade discussed the strength these ceremonies lend to the institution as a whole, saying, “The Vassar experience is much richer when you factor in its traditions.” He added, “Continuing this ceremony during this most challenging of times proves once again our resiliency as a black community, an alumni community, and a Vassar community.”

Preserving these affinity traditions, albeit a digitized version, reflects the work that various identity communities have contributed to the campus community. Simultaneously, these ceremonies honor the ongoing work of students, faculty and alumnae/i to create a more inclusive Vassar experience and post-graduate support network, while reflecting the plurality of experiences with academic life—of its challenges and joys. Speaking broadly about all digitized affinity traditions, Pittman expressed, “Adding to other legacies, the rich collection of affinity ceremonies simply honors those contributions and marks a time in Vassar’s history. I’m glad the ceremonies were not lost in the tragedies of COVID-19.”

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