A proud day for students and family members, graduation is the highlight of the academic year. Part ceremony, part celebration, it’s an occasion filled with fascinating rituals and traditions.
Most graduation ceremonies follow a similar format with instantly recognisable conventions. Students hire a gown, cap and hood to wear on their big day. Black gowns are the norm except for those receiving a doctorate who wear red, while the hood denotes faculty and rank. Once appropriately dressed, everyone makes their way to the venue to receive their degree. Senior academic staff file in and take their place on the stage before a welcome address is given. Then it’s time to walk across the stage one by one, enjoying a special moment and an unforgettable sense of achievement after several years of intensive study.
Each student’s name and degree classification are called before they receive a congratulatory handshake from a senior dignitary along with a piece of paper representing their degree certificate. The actual certificate is usually sent after the graduation ceremony. Having received their award, graduates get to enjoy the rest of the speeches and catch up with friends and family, but different universities around the world have their own unique rituals and traditions.
In the hallowed halls of Cambridge University, the degree ceremony is conducted in Latin. A person holding the position of ‘Praelector’ presents each graduate to the Vice Chancellor or the Master of their College. This is done in groups of four, so each student holds one of the Praelector’s fingers and is towed forward to receive their degree.
At Edinburgh University each graduate’s head is tapped with the ‘Geneva bonnet’, a cap believed to be made from John Knox's breeches. Knox was the renowned clergyman who founded the Presbyterian Church. St Andrew's University has a similar graduation tradition that involves a cloth that is supposedly made from a pair of Knox's trousers.
The traditional academic dress of cap and gown that is worn for graduation dates from medieval times and has hardly changed over the centuries. Keen to update the formula for the 21st century, King’s College London turned to the fashion designer Dame Vivienne Westwood for a fresh take on its traditional academic gown. Unveiled in 2008, Westwood created a gown that she hoped would link the past, present and future and in a bold move, hats were dispensed with altogether.
Colleges in the United States also have their own wonderful customs. At Wellesley College, graduates race wooden hoops down the street and the winner is said to go on and enjoy great success, while students at Yale rub the toe of the statue of former university president Theodore Dwight Woolsey for good luck. This tradition is thought to arise from Woolsey’s support of the Yale sailing team. Whenever he kicked a boat with his left toe to start a race, Yale would win. Graduates at Williams College also take part in a good luck ritual by throwing their watches from the top of the Thompson Chapel to mark the passage of time.
The rest of the world boasts its fair share of unique graduation customs. In Finland, doctoral students must wear a sword and hat, while graduates of the Kanazawa College of Art in Japan receive their honours in fancy dress. And spare a thought for students in Italy and Argentina where ‘trashing’ is traditional. Graduates are covered in cream, sauce and alcohol in a messy celebration.