“Honor of Honors”

Sunday was UVa’s graduation day, and I was glad to be able to be in town for it. Graduation (called ‘Final Exercises’, because UVa has to have its own name for everything) is done on the same day for everyone graduating that year, for every school, college, department and level of degree, unlike back at Birmingham where there are many different dates. The most important part of it is the procession down the Lawn. When students arrive at the university in their first year, there is a ceremony called Convocation, which is held facing the Rotunda – a symbol of the learning that will take place. Final Exercises is held at the other end of the Lawn, facing away from the Rotunda and looking outwards– a symbol of taking the learning that you have now acquired and going forth out into the world with it. For the one big ceremony, the Lawn is packed with seats for families, plus extra space for friends and anyone else who can watch from further away. Every single graduating student, dressed in their cap and gown, process around the side of the Rotunda, down the steps and along the whole length of the Lawn. That’s nearly 7000 people. A special UVa tradition is that lots and lots of students carry balloons with them, of all shapes and sizes, so that they can be distinguished among the crowd. Some people also decorate the top of their mortarboard.

The weather could not have been more perfect, the Lawn looked stunning, and it was a lovely occasion. The special speaker was Katie Couric, who is a household name in America and one of the most famous news anchors and TV interviewers/personalities, and who went to UVa. Her speech was pretty good, we all agreed, not incredible, but pretty good.

After the main ceremony everyone split into separate department ceremonies, held at different locations and where the actual diplomas are given out. I went to the Drama one, held (appropriately) in the main theatre. Because I did Senior Seminar I knew every graduating Drama major, so it was great to see them all actually getting their degrees. All the faculty were introduced, and then the chair of the department read out each student’s name, they stood by the lecturn and he read out a short piece they had written about their favourite memories of the department and their plans for the future, and then they were presented with their diploma by their faculty advisor. It was lovely because it was so personal; because it’s a small and friendly department and because the nature of doing shows means you work very closely with people and spend an awful lot of time in the building, the staff and students have very close relationships and the department really means a lot to them. I can’t imagine that the English or Biology ceremonies were anything like that meaningful. Afterwards there was a reception in the lobby with graduates, friends, family and staff all mingling and taking lots of photos! I was really glad to have been able to attend.

There is such a palpable sense of pride from students and their families about graduating from a place like this. There is a poem that is given to each student on a small card at Convocation in their first year, called ‘The Honor Men’, written in 1903, and it was on the minds of everyone yesterday. It ends with the lines:

remembering the purple shadows of the lawn, the majesty of the colonnades, and the dream of your youth, you may say in reverence and thankfulness:

“I have worn the honors of honor, I graduated from Virginia.”

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