How Can We Pomp Under These Circumstances?

I graduated high school in 2020 at a small church gathering in the middle of the rural Pennsylvania countryside. This is, of course, because I was homeschooled. One of the local co-ops was hosting a graduation, and with a graduating class of less than 20, I strolled down a church aisle, gave a two minute speech, and accepted my diploma, awarded by none other than my mom.

From what I’ve heard, this was better than most people got. One Eastern student, Abby Lapp, received her diploma in the fabled “drive-through graduation.” She described a quaint ceremony where speeches were given over the radio, and each graduate had to exit their car before receiving a diploma. “We got to do a parade through the town, so that was fun,” Lapp said. Some 2020 graduates received theirs in the mail, with no ceremony at all.

Another Eastern student, Ella Curcuruto reported a Zoom graduation. “I sat at the dining room table, laptop in front of me, while my family watched in the living room,” Curcuruto said. “Our teachers tried so hard to make it a special occasion, and I’m still grateful to them for that, but it definitely felt like an anticlimactic moment.” Naturally, this has led me to question: is graduation worth it?

I’ve always been skeptical of ceremony. Personally, things like graduation ceremonies never made much sense to me, especially in the traditional sense. My graduation ceremony was a lot more personal than most. I had two whole minutes to thank the important people in my life and impart the things I had learned in my high school years.

Graduation ceremonies where only one student, or sometimes no students, are able to speak feel like they wouldn’t be a big deal to the average student. Is it truly a recognition of your accomplishments if the only thing mentioned about you is your name and that you did, in fact, graduate? What real impact can five seconds of fame have on a graduate, especially if the handshake and fake diploma are being dispensed by someone you might not have met before. I’m not even sure who hands us the diploma on May 4, but somehow I doubt it will be the teachers and staff who have made an actual difference in my life. 

That being said, this perspective is not the only one. Some might argue that despite the skeptics, graduation can be a hopeful time to celebrate the accomplishments of a graduate. Ella Curcuruto expressed joy at the idea of a big ceremony: “I love the pomp and circumstance!” She described how a big ceremony is something graduates have more than earned. “We and our friends, families, and communities worked so hard to get to this point, and I’ll be damned if I don’t get to dress up and celebrate this accomplishment! Having a distinctly different day that wraps everything up feels satisfactory and exciting.” 

Abby Lapp also espoused an optimistic perspective about graduation. “My hope for college graduation is that it goes smoothly and that I’m actually able to enjoy the day,” she said. She seemed to look forward to the ceremony as a beacon of how far a graduate has come: “I think the pomp and circumstance is a nice way to really celebrate what we’ve accomplished. It’s an important and exciting thing we’ve gone through in the past four years.” 

This is all fair! I want to be able to celebrate the hard-won accomplishments of college. This is where I have suggestions. These suggestions might not work at every college but maybe will at Eastern or other smaller colleges. At Eastern, there’s a separate graduation ceremony for graduate students from certain departments, and I think this idea could be pushed further. Though it might require more coordination than hosting a single graduation, hosting department-specific graduation ceremonies could provide a more personal touch to the ceremony.

Imagine if, instead of graduating with hundreds of other students silently, you could graduate with the department that you’ve spent roughly four years with and be handed your diploma from a department chair or well-respected faculty member you’ve gotten to know. If the department is big, maybe they read a short list of your accomplishments as you accept your diploma. If it’s small, maybe the graduates can say a few words of gratitude.

Department-specific graduations do have drawbacks. One is that it means you wouldn’t be able to graduate with all your friends from different majors. I understand that the desire for unity and camaraderie may trump the desire for specific recognition. Still, I hesitate when I see the typical graduation ceremony because I know that every person in the graduating class has a story. Every cap in the crowd had people who helped them, times where they struggled to succeed, and times where they did it anyway. I think that deserves more recognition than simply their name read aloud. 

My hope for graduation is that I’m wrong about graduation. The last four years have been like trying to hold on to a rocket ship as it launches into space, from navigating strange and largely inconsistent COVID-19 policies my freshman year, to figuring out the wild world of employment and setting off on my own. I hope that graduation feels like a breath of fresh air, like a bittersweet ending and a new beginning. I hope the music and the speech and the final moments of our time at Eastern are just what we needed. And if you’re reading this and you’re not in the graduating class of 2024, take a moment to congratulate a graduate. Heaven knows we need it.

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