Commencement: A Layer of Tradition

Students at Convocation 2016.

by Grace McCrocklin '16 

In its early days, the medieval European tradition of Baccalaureate served as a way to honor graduates receiving their bachelor’s degree (“bacca”) with laurels (“lauri”). At Dickinson, the ceremony points to the college’s religious origins. A peek into one of The Dickinsonian’s first issues recounts James Andrew McCauley, class of 1847 and college president 1872-88, preaching the Baccalaureate sermon as part of the 1874 Commencement ceremony. By 1884, the service was part of Commencement  exercises but stood alone as its own program.

This history is how Donna Hughes, director of the Center for Service, Spirituality and Social Justice, found herself at the helm of planning and executing the ceremony when she came to Dickinson. Now she is part of a committee of faculty and students in charge of deciding which seniors will make speeches, perform musical or dance pieces and lead a multifaith prayer.

“Originally it was a religious ceremony, and now that’s not true at most places and definitely not at Dickinson, where it’s a way to offer what people’s experiences have been,” she says.

After two days of open auditions to choose the featured students—whose involvement was revealed only when the Baccalaureate program was passed out at the May 21 ceremony— selected speakers and performers participated in rehearsals and a timed run-through, necessary for any production of this caliber.

“It takes a fair amount of preparation to make sure that it runs smoothly and that it all fits the theme,” says Hughes. This year’s theme, based on former U.S. poet laureate Stanley Kunitz’s poem “The Layers,” was both reflective and forward-looking.

For many graduating seniors, the ceremony offers a moment to consider their own layers. “Baccalaureate offers a brief reprieve from the madness that is Commencement Weekend,” says John “Mac” Dinsmore ’16. “It provides an opportunity to reflect upon our last four years in a calm and reverent environment.”

In past years, notable figures like the Rev. Dr. Lloyd John Ogilvie, chaplain of the U.S. Senate, and the Right Rev. Desmond M. Tutu, general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, took their turn leading the meditation. This year, Brian Kamoie ’93, assistant administrator for grant programs at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was the keynote speaker.

“When you look back, consider the milestones along your way,” Kamoie told the assembled crowd. “Kunitz wrote the poem when he was in his 70s, so he references his milestones dwindling against the horizon, but you are just getting started. It may surprise you, but I am still closer to you in age than I am to Kunitz when he wrote the poem, and to this day, the support I received from the faculty and staff here continue to propel me forward in my own milestones, as they will for you.”

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Published July 12, 2016