Tassel the hassle: Origins of graduation traditions explained

In the moment of graduation, students are not thinking about the origins of the cap and gown. It seems funny to wear a robe at a traditional event celebrating one’s success in academics.

According to the UAA commencement document, there is a legend about an ancient Greek teacher who is responsible for potentially starting the tradition of the cap and gown.

This mentor dressed his students in mason’s sackcloth robes with mortarboards he claimed, “Their destiny is to build. Some will build cities, some will build lives — perhaps one of them will build an empire, but all will be builders on the solid foundation of knowledge.” The matching mortarboards and robes can be seen as a symbol of unity.

Whether or not this is true, the cap and gowns are still worn till this day. Referencing back to the UAA commencement document, there are traces of the gowns that are similar to the ones worn today in the mid-12th century. When studying under a scholar, many of the students wanted to dress similar to their instructors, who were mainly monks or priest at the time. As time went on the academic robes stuck, but there were mild modifications made. Now, each university has their own traditional colors added, UAA’s being green and gold.

Wearing the cap and gown can bring the feeling of satisfaction and honor. Jennifer Holganza, majoring in marketing and management, has been looking forward to wearing the cap and gown once again.

“I think the cap and gown are great and very traditional,” Holganza said. “In high school, I was so proud to wear maroon and gold to represent my lovely Dimond High School. I think wearing it again will be just as amazing and not only will I be proud, but many of my loved ones watching.”

The cap and gown are not the only traditions that were preserved, but the ceremony of graduation itself. The iconic graduation song, “Pomp and Circumstance,” can easily be recognized at any graduation. Written by Sir Edward Elgar in 1901, the song first became correlated with graduation ceremonies when Elgar received his honorary doctorate from Yale University. His song was played during his graduation and soon became the song that would represent graduation ceremonies from then on.

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“There is absolutely nothing like hearing the first notes of Pomp and Circumstance and beginning to walk,” Holganza said.

Hoods are another common tradition. The UAA commencement document mentions that the hoods are a representation of the medieval monk’s cowl. During the ceremony, UAA master’s degree graduates will be wearing their hoods displaying their extension beyond the bachelor’s degree.

Although the turning of the tassel is fairly new, it still has its fair share of symbolism. Starting about 50 years ago, the moving of the tassel signifies the movement from candidate to graduate. Depending on the university, the side the tassel lays and is moved from is determined by that school. Many universities state that the tassel should be moved from the right side to the left. However, UAA claims that it does not matter which side the tassel is worn, but it is traditional to move it to the opposite side after accepting the diploma.

The graduation ceremony celebrates those who accomplished this chapter in their lives and opens the next chapter creating a new beginning. Some graduates choose not to walk at graduation due to expenses of graduation itself or they are just ready to grab that diploma and go. Others participate in the ceremony not only for themselves, but to make their family and friends proud.

“It’s a positive tradition, I’m only walking in it for my parents.” Anthony Picasso, major in criminal justice and minor in anthropology said. “But, I think it’s great, the real celebration happens after the ceremony when we can actually hang out with our families and friends.”

UAA has their own tradition that takes place at beginning of the graduation. There is a performance made by the Lepquinm Gumilgit Gagoadim Tsimshian as an Alaskan Native welcome dance. Bridgett Dyson, chair of the commencement committee, plans the graduation ceremonies.

Photo credit: Jian Bautista

“The Lepquinm Gumilgit Gagoadim Tsimshian have been performing this dance at our ceremonies for years,” Dyson said. “Toward the end of the ceremony, a representative from the UAA Alumni Association introduces the Alma Mater, which is then led by two student singers.”

These different traditions are common through graduations all over the world. Yet, there are rituals that are specific throughout cultures and communities. In Alaska, Hawaiian traditions of leis are common and have become a big part of saying ‘congrats’ to our graduates.

“I am Filipino, so you can say I’m an island baby who will have leis of both flowers and candy. It’s also another tradition that I am so excited for,” Holganza said.

A great accomplishment should always be celebrated. Traditions tie together the past and the future and show the importance of accomplishments. These graduates have waited a long time to proudly walk down and claim their hard earned diploma wearing their cap and gowns.