A Pacific Island tradition livens up commencement season

Alaska livens up graduation ceremonies with Hawaiian garments.

Decorative leis of several types can be seen at the UAA fall commencement ceremony. Graphic by Jian Bautista.

Leis, often associated with Hawaiian culture, are wreaths of flowers worn around a person’s neck. In the Pacific Islands and Polynesian cultures, leis symbolize love and celebration. They also embody the meaning of “aloha,” according to the Hawaiian Lei Company.

“We use [aloha] in greetings and farewells and in expressing love,” according to huna.org, a website that offers articles, videos, and information on Hawaiian practices. 

Wearing leis on graduation can be a fun way for graduates to say farewell to their classmates and teachers while welcoming a new chapter of their lives. Being draped in dozens of leis while flinging a cap into the air to celebrate graduation has become a tradition at both high school and college graduations.

People from many different backgrounds and cultures have begun to wear leis at graduation. Given the close distance, Alaskans often feel a connection to Hawaii. In a 2013 article, the Anchorage Daily News wrote that most lei stands began establishing themselves in Anchorage in the early 2000s. 

“[The graduation lei] tradition has spread past the Pacific [Islands] and into many corners of the world,” according to flowerleis.com. “Getting in on the fun and festivity that comes from bestowing a lei on a graduate is for anyone who wants to add to the graduate’s special day.” 

During the UAA fall and spring commencement seasons, dozens of vendors span Anchorage ready to sell leis. When looking for a graduation lei, students and family members can either buy one from a local florist, lei stand or make their own. Leis range from $20-$100 depending on the vendor and the quality of the materials. 

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There are many types of leis you can gift to a graduate:

The traditional flower lei creates a wearable gift by using flowers. Photo courtesy of the Hawaiian Flower Lei website.

Flowers leis

The most traditional type of lei gifted to graduates is the flower lei. Some of the common flowers used in leis include orchids, carnations and plumerias. These leis are a perfect sentimental gift since they can be dried and kept for years. 

Candy Leis

A candy lei incorporates candy in place of flowers in the traditional lei design. Photo courtesy of the Hawaiian Flower Lei website.

Candy leis are perfect to gift to graduates with a sweet tooth. Graduates can enjoy their sweet treats after commencement or share with friends. These leis are usually made with about 10–20 pieces of fun-size candies. After the hours of preparation and waiting for commencement to begin, this lei could be a great post-graduation snack. 

What you’ll need:

  • 10-20 pieces of wrapped fun-size candy
  • Ribbon
  • Scissors
  • Tubing, netting or polytube 


  1. Measure the tubing to the length you would like the lei to be and cut the tubing.
  2. On one end of the tubing, tie a ribbon about an inch from the end.
  3. Place a piece of candy into the tubing and tie a ribbon after each piece.
  4. When the tubing is fully filled, tie a ribbon to the open end to secure the lei.

Money Leis

A money lei uses money and flora as a gift. Photo courtesy of the Hawaiian Flower Lei website.

Graduates are often gifted money by family members and friends in celebration of their academic achievements. Some individuals fold dollar bills into flowers and string them along to make a money lei. This can be a fun and unique way to give money to graduates.

What you’ll need:

  • Ribbon
  • Scissors
  • 10-15 dollar bills
  • Beads 


  1. Measure the ribbon to the length you would like the lei to be and tie a knot at the end.
  2. Fold the dollar bills into paper fans or flowers.
  3. Place a dollar bill on the ribbon and carefully tie a knot around the middle of the folded dollar bill. Place a bead between bills.
  4. Repeat step three for all the dollar bills. Tie the to the ends of the ribbon together.