Graduation: beginnings, practices . . .


LATE March to middle April will see campuses all over the country decked with the usual stage décor heralding a milestone for many Filipino families. In quest of a better life, a son or daughter or a next of kin or even a parent joins graduation ceremonies (pagtatapos) – a symbol that a quest for a better future begins that day. The graduation ceremony is also known as a convocation, commencement, invocation of general admission. Anthropologists consider graduation to be a rite of passage— it marks a change from one stage of life to the next in a person’s social life. The person has a new social identity.

A graduation ceremony, being a rite, has features that date back to the original ceremony for the same purpose. Books on the history of graduation inform that it is an age-old ceremony that dates back to the 1400’s. Another source says “the whole idea of graduation is believed to have started in the 12th Century, introduced by scholastic monks who wore robes during the entire graduation ceremony.” Certain features dating back through centuries have remained although it has been evolving these many years where institutions all over the world have added features to the ceremony and its attached practices distinctive of their identity. Some of these accompanying practices are the baccalaureate Mass, recognition day where graduating students/seniors distinguished in extra-curriculum are awarded certificates of recognition and/or medals. Then there is also the annual Candlelight Ceremony — a solemn but celebratory occasion held the night before commencement, right after sundown, to commemorate the transition of the newest graduates. An official has a lighted candle and a student lights his/her candle from the official’s lighted candle. From there, every other student lights a candle from another student’s candle “to symbolize the knowledge and experience passed between peers, neighbors and friends” candlelight. asp.

The graduation ceremony begins with a processional with the following: the Marshal leads the processional. When there is a long line of graduates, there is, besides the Grand Marshal, a Marshal. In many universities where the University or College Registrar is a male, the Registrar takes the role of the Marshall. If a female, the Grand Marshall could be any male vice-president/chancellor/provost or vice-provost/a distinguished faculty member.

First used as a weapon, the mace dates back to medieval times. To enter battle, Medieval European bishops forbade the use of the sword. A mace instead was used, often an iron or steel club designed to split armor. Another source says that the mace, often made of iron or steel was used to drive crowds as a procession of graduands (candidates) pass by the streets for the graduation ceremony.

At those times and even today, unlike almost all of our colleges and universities, these institutions had towns/cities located in their “campuses” —- what are known these days as university towns/cities. For example, Göttingen university town lies within the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen grounds; St. Andrews town in Scotland, within the University of St. Andrews — one of Britain’s oldest university (1411, the third oldest in the English-speaking world) and where Prince William met his Ms. Middleton. (I recall, during my attachment at St. Andrews U in Scotland, Nick Halpin’s Guidance and Counselling Department was near a bakery.)

“Campuses” being such, graduation processionals have to pass by crowds of people. As we said earlier, the mace at those times served to drive people to clear the way for the processional to pass. By the 16th century, the mace, symbolizing authority, was embraced as a ceremonial object by academe and since then, has been traditionally carried by a Marshall in academic processions.

The commencement procession is usually composed of the following clusters sequenced thus: (1) the commencement guest speaker/s and trustees/regents, administrative officials; (2) the faculty; and (3) degree candidates, with law followed by advanced degrees candidates in the lead, there after by baccalaureate candidates in the order of the founding year of their colleges (from the oldest to the recent). The groupings may march in the above order; if in reverse order, the candidates for degrees after reaching their seats, remain standing, facing toward the center aisle as a mark of respect while the faculty, administrative officials and trustees/regents proceed toward upstage.

The order of the faculty follow the order of their respective undergraduate colleges immediately before those of law and graduate school. Institutions with verticalized degrees, where undergraduate degrees deans are also deans of the graduate degrees attached to their respective colleges, follow the order as that of the colleges, with the law dean as last.

The music played is “Pomp and Circumstance” as the traditional graduation march. Composed by Sir Edward Elgar, the piece was first performed on 19 October 1902 in Liverpool, England. English institutions passed it down to America, which passed it down worldwide < 2006/04/18/graduation-rites-have-ancient-history/>.

The graduation ceremony, considered a formal academic rite follows certain traditional practices to-date. The Trustees/Regents and principal guest/s, University officials proceed upstage to their seats. The University Marshall follows upstage, places the mace in its stand, remains standing by the side to wait for the guards who come upstage with the country and university banners. The master of ceremonies requests everybody to stand for the singing of the country and university hymns; after which, the emcee declares that they are now in session for the (eg. 60th) ____ Commencement Exercises of (name of the HEI).”

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Teresita Tanhueco-Tumapon, Ph.D., is one of the Philippines most accomplished educators and experts on institutional management in colleges and universities. Her studies have included not only education and pedagogy but also literature. She has studied not only in the topmost universities in the Philippines but also in Germany, Britain and Japan. She is now the Vice-President for External Relations and Internationalization of the Liceo de Cagayan University (in Cagayan de Oro) after serving as its VP for Academic Affairs for six and a half years concurrent to her ten years as dean in the Graduate Studies of the same university. She holds a Lifetime Professional Achievement Award from the Commission on Higher Education.



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  1. Teresita Tanhueco-Tumapon on

    Thank you Mr. Lim for sharing these features with us. I think we do not go over board as long as we keep certain parts that have been to this day practiced such as the highest academic officer presenting to the president the candidates for graduation and the president declares them graduates — keeping to the age-old wordings; or the tassle moved to the right after the canidates are pronounced as graduates. To my mind —features such as honoring parents I think are NOT out of place;

    In a University I was with until the first EDSA, we had something similar — honoring the parents — and giving them opportunity with their sons/daughters meet their batch members, the faculty and admin officials — I think, if I recall correctly, we did this after the baccalaureate mass — they were ushered into a big hall where some sandwiches and coffee, etc were served; the vp’s saw to it that everybody, eg. shy parents were attended to. An emcee leads everybody in brief prayer, welcomes all present, thanks God for a fruitful academic year, thanks parents for keepinng faith that the school has given the graduands a good preparation for a career, encourages the candidates to introduce their parents to the teachers, to batchmates, etc.

    ( i think the music is inappropriate — I attended a graduation where the graduation march was a Tango1) .

  2. There was one event or events that surprised me and my wife on the eve of my son’s college graduation. The parents were honored and given thanks in informal dinners and backyard barbecues by the graduating students. We were ushered into the students’ apartments or backyards and met my son’s classmates, some of them we knew already, and met their parents too. Starting in early afternoon until about 9:00pm, we, the parents, were given praise and gratitude in each stop while chatting with the students and their parents and having happy moments.

    Then on graduation day, there were two events: One at the college auditorium and the other at the university auditorium. At the college level, each graduate marched to the stage and was recognized and given the diploma and honors and awards and other citation that the graduate deserved. This was a more solemn and memorable occasion than the one at the university auditorium where the undergraduates were just honored en masse by standing up. Only the graduates with doctoral degrees marched through the stage. The student speaker was selected by the student body couple of months before. The guest speaker and honorary graduates were selected by the University faculty and administration.