There’s some unusual behavior at college graduations in the U.S. From the graduates’ clothes to the commencement speakers, the ceremonies are not your average day at school. Some graduation traditions are common throughout the U.S. and some are unique to their schools.
Generally, all graduating students wear a cap and gown. (At one time, as in Europe, students wore them every day to class, but no more.) The flat cap, called a mortarboard, is decorated with a tassel that is worn on the right side until a student receives a diploma, at which point he or she shifts it to the left.
The most popular graduation music is “Pomp and Circumstance.” Its first use as a procession march was in 1905 at Yale University, when its composer, Edward Elgar, attended the ceremony to receive an honorary degree.
Here is a selection of some of the more unusual graduation traditions you’ll find in America.
Beware of falling hats
This tradition started with one school, then went big. Before 1912, graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis needed the hats they’d worn at the academy during their first two years of service in the Navy. The end of this requirement meant the 1912 grads would get new officers’ hats at graduation, so after they each were given a diploma, the entire class spontaneously threw their old hats in celebration. The tradition continues at the Naval Academy and has spread to countless other colleges in the U.S and beyond.
But this isn’t my diploma!
Students graduating from Smith College in Massachusetts, a women’s college, are handed a diploma with someone else’s name on it. Since 1911, Smith grads have gathered just after the ceremony to circulate the diplomas to their rightful owners. Once a student finds the one with her name, she steps out of the “diploma circle” until every diploma has been given to its matching graduate.
Apple for the teacher
In 1978, Kirkland College, an alternative women’s institution, merged with Hamilton College, which had been a men’s school until that time. The two student bodies together became Hamilton College, but ever since, the progressive influence of the earlier Kirkland College is honored by all Hamilton grads, who present a green apple (Kirkland’s old emblem) to the Hamilton College president before receiving their diplomas.
It’s not unusual for graduates to decorate their mortarboards to make it easy for their friends and relatives to spot them among all their classmates. But those graduating with an architecture degree from the University of Notre Dame in Indiana take the practice to a whole new level by adding buildings, bridges and all manner of construction to their caps.
A time to grow
Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina, is known for its environmental efforts. The campus recycles more than 50 percent of its waste, and most of the food in its dining halls comes from on-campus or local sources. This respect for nature carries into the school’s graduation tradition. Since the early 1990s, all graduates, after receiving their diplomas, also receive hemlock-tree saplings that they vow to plant in the next place life takes them.