Why Not European Graduation Ceremonies?

When I got a graduate degree from an American university a couple of years ago, I had a lot of international friends who’d come to study. We all went to the graduation ceremony together.  Everybody who had graduated gathered outside in their caps and gowns, ouside in a huge field.  A few odd customs were observed, then various college officials gave speeches, then came the speech by the invited guests. 

Everybody then retired to separate cerremonies in other parts of campus for the actual handing-out of the degrees. Everyone who graduated in, say, law got together and waited for their name to be called. The foreign students were asked to email pronunciation hints before the ceremony to help the announcer. Those who forgot heard "Bu-La-Ti, uhh, Goo-lik-ma-norp.  I think."  The dean personally handed you your college diploma, bound with a red ribbon, then shook your hand, and congratulated you for a job well-done. Photographers took pictures at the exact moment when the degree changed hands. Large families gathered, everybody beamed with pride, some people cried.

My European friends were impressed (not always positively) by several things about American universities: how much they cost; the competition among the students; how shiny, new, and high-tech the buildings were; and the fact that students spent a lot of time studying, didn’t cheat, and respected the brightest classmates instead of envying them.

But all of them loved the graduation ceremony. I was stunned to find out that such things didn’t exist in Europe, but it’s true, they largely don’t. I was reminded of this intercultural experience by a recent encomium to graduation ceremonies, from American blogger Siva Vaidhyanathan:

…if you are ever too down or frustrated about the state and direction of our nation, just spend a day hanging around Florida International University in Miami.  Or, better yet, slip in to a graduation ceremony there, as I did yesterday.  I have been to dozens of university commencements.  And this was by far the best.

Florida International is a 34-year-old public university that sits west of downtown Miami.  It has one of the most ethnically diverse populations of any university I have ever seen.  It started out as a commuter school but has grown into an ambitious residential research university.  …Living up to its name, it attracts students from hundreds of national origins and represents the vitality and diversity of South Florida very well.

At the graduation ceremony, I was deeply struck by the looks of awe and respect that these graduates’ families had for their efforts.  These were not folks who took this opportunity for granted.  They had no sense of entitlement.  They were modest and directed.

The ceremony itself was no-nonsense, unpretentious, and fun.  There was no long-winded address by some famous person who charged $20,000 to tell students to give back to their community.  Students spoke.  Faculty spoke.  Everyone was brief.  At one point the president of the university, Modesto A. Maidique, asked all the students who graduated cum laude to raise their hands.  Then he asked if any had a grade point average of 3.98.  Three did.  He asked them to come to the stage — impromptu — and tell everyone how they did it and which professor gave them the A minus.  The students were shy and witty.  They were clearly moved and tickled by this move.  The three students with such a high record of achievement, one could not help but notice, were from Peru, Argentina, and Trinidad.

On a day when immigrants all around the nation were letting people understand [(G) – link added] just how essential they are to our daily lives, these three students stood out and promised us all excellence and inspiration.  They stood for the dynamic opportunity that still exists all over this great nation.

As they told their stories, I could not help but reflect on how much of the recent immigration debate has focused on immigrants as labor (muscle) vs. immigrants as skill sets (engineers), as if those were all that immigrants bring to this country….But no one counts imagination, inspiration, and chutzpah. You can’t quantify that stuff. Immigrants refresh and reset our national imaginations.  They remind us what is possible and introduce us to new possibilities.  They check those of us fortunate enough to be born here from getting too comfortable, complacent, or whiney.

4 thoughts on “Why Not European Graduation Ceremonies?

  1. Although I didn´t join in my colleagues in Graduation Ceremony here in Brazil (the last one I did it, was back on the early 90´s when I left the “Ensino Fundamental” that is a kind of “Junior High School” or “8. Klasse” in Germany.) It´s is really hard for me to understand why there is not such a ceremony in Germany. The graduation cerimonies/parties in Brazil are very popular and clearly inspired in the americans. It´s a great (and expensive!) opportunity to celebrate with people that have studied with you, shared the same problems and solutions, and often became your friend and sometimes fiancee/husband/wife. That is a moment to celebrate with family and the closest friends too. Since they have supported you emotionally and financially (education in Brazil is not as expensive as in the US but – unfortunately- still ” elite thing”) to get “there”.

    Why not europeans graduate ceremonies? Maybe because they took education for granted? Maybe because their families isn´t that important in that process? Maybe because they do not get ‘close enough’ to their college mates? When I´ve finished all my exams my closest colleagues/friends weren´t graduating exactly on the same year than me or they would graduate in another course, which means another ceremony. So I thought that it wouldn´t be nice to be “alone in the crowd” in my graduation ceremony and decided to commemorate it in a sleazy bar near the college with the old friends and fresh made caipirinha! But do not think that my family was happy about that! My father is damn proud of my sister´s graduation ceremony. But she went to a medicine school.. and they have a well konwn tradition on making the best graduation parties. You can´t say the same thing about the ” misfitted” Germanistics Students 😉

    On the other hand, germans have a cute “first day in School ceremony, when the kids get a huge “Schultüte” (a kind of bag full of candies) and take pictures. I wish I had a ” Schultüte” 😦


  2. I believe the university in Bonn has commenced doing a graduation ceremony with the mortarboards and everything. In any case, the university in Heidelberg has been doing it for years in the Alten Aula, the historic lecture hall.

    I agree – it is part of the North American tradition – and it gives graduates a final moment of achievement, pride and enjoyment before they leave their university. That can’t hurt when the university starts sending its requests for donations – about six months later, if I recall!


  3. Sorry, I cannot agree. I recently completed a US postgraduate degree and found the standard lacking. I think the German elite Unis such as Munich and Heidelberg have stronger traditions and still (though watered down by decades of liberalism) cater for the old “Bildung” as opposed to “Ausbildung” which is the main goal of US unis. Top US unis are just prime “Ausbildung” factories.


  4. Yeah. I attended Wisconsin – Milwaukee, which is a similarly ethnic mix and I’ve always remembered those strivers. Of course I was a striver myself (caucasian male branch) and always felt more kinship with other strivers of whatever variety than caucasian slackers.

    I had to laugh when the story came out about the Taliban propoganda minister at Yale on a full ride. A blogger dug up another Afghan student in New Haven who wasn’t going to Yale but to night school at the local community college, and asked why a Talibani got the deal instead of her? I thought it a damn good question given that her mother worked as a contract cleaner for none other than – da da!! Yale University!

    There was a time not too long ago when Yale cared about such things – but no longer. Not enough star quality to a Afghan peasant, but the Talibani promised to be a star in future years.

    So yes, there is definately a class division in modern US society but it’s not where you might expect it to be. Not in solidly middle class or aspiring class U’s like Wisconsin – Milwaukee or Florida International. No, it’s at Harvard and Yale, whose faculty regularly lecture their barbaric fellow citizenry on the class divide.

    Well, they should know if anyone does. They are the experts!
    TITLE: Why not European graduation ceremonies?
    URL: http://pajamasmedia.com/2006/05/why_not_european_graduation_ce.php
    BLOG NAME: Pajamas Media
    DATE: 05/05/2006 02:00:10 PM
    German Joys writes on something that makes American and European universities different: “My European friends were impressed (not always positively) by several things about American universities: how much they cost; the competition among the students; …


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