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Commencement: saying goodbye to yesterday.

When the young, a cappella, African-American group Boyz II Men combined music and lyrics to create their chart-breaking hit song, "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday," little did they know that they were creating a contemporary theme song for commencement exercises around the country. In their haunting melody, they have captured the bittersweet feelings that accompany challenge, change, transitions, rites of passage, and new beginnings. And that is what graduation or commencement is really about.

According to the World Book Encyclopedia, the first formal graduation exercises are said to have been conducted by European universities in the Middle Ages. But, rites of passage ceremonies and rituals date back to the earliest known traditions of man, which have their roots in Africa.

American colleges and universities have adopted many of the customs of the early European exercises. Usually there are two special graduation ceremonies--baccalaureate and commencement. According to custom, the baccalaureate is a religious service, usually held the Sunday before commencement. Diplomas are actually awarded at the commencement ceremony. The diploma is given in recognition of the achievement of having successfully completed the academic requirements for a particular course of study to earn a college degree. In keeping with the customs, caps and gowns, patterned after European academic dress, are worn to distinguish the graduates. The caps are called mortarboards. A tassel worn on the mortarboard may be in different colors to show the kind of degree the graduate has earned. University administrators and faculty wear their academic robes to these ceremonies in tribute to the graduates. Their robes have hoods on the back in different colors to show the highest degree they hold, the academic area of the degree and the institution from which their degree was conferred. In the past, these ceremonies have been very formal, full of "pomp and circumstance."

As contemporary graduates influence these traditions, they have taken on more of a celebratory rather than solemn air. Today's graduate seems less impressed by traditions that may not be based in their own cultural traditions, and more determined to create customs that represent how they feel about this occasion.

As more and more African Americans graduate from colleges and universities, they too are reshaping these ceremonies to be more meaningful to themselves and their families.

African-American students at the University of Cincinnati, like students at a number of other predominantly white institutions, have created their own pre-commencement event called a Tyehimba Celebration. Tyehimba means "We Stand As a Nation." This event was created to actually make the graduation experience more personal and more meaningful to African-American students and their families, who were dissatisfied with the large commencement event where only a few family members could attend and where the graduates simply stand en masse, when their college is called, with little opportunity for personal recognition unless that student is an honor graduate.

For African Americans, graduating from college is still a big deal. For many, they are the first generation in their families to even go to college, let alone graduate. In their neighborhoods and communities, this is a big deal also, and many family members, neighbors, extended family, and friends want to be there to see one of their own receive this prestigious recognition. In other words, these African-American graduates are reaching back to our African traditions which demand that we celebrate achievements by acknowledging that we did not get here by ourselves, but have risen on the backs of our ancestors and our immediate families who sacrificed and toiled that we might go to college and graduate. African-American students are not always aware of the origins of the traditional commencement ceremonies, and they feel no particular loyalty to traditions that do not include their culture and heritage. So today's contemporary, conscious, African-American graduate is likely to approach graduation as a festive, rather than solemn occasion, dressed in the traditional gown, but also proudly sporting a kente stole to acknowledge from whence they come.

And despite the partying that will precede the formal ceremony, on graduation day, it will still seem bittersweet.

Why? Because the graduate is in transition, saying goodbye to the better things of youth--first day of college, first college date, first heartbreak in college, first all-night cramming for exams, first and last exam, and the last time that they will see many of their college friends and faculty who helped them along the way. It is indeed hard to say goodbye to yesterday. But the occasion is also sweet. The sweet taste of achievement and recognition, the sweet taste of completing a difficult journey, the sweet excitement and feeling of adventure that signals every new beginning, sweet because you are moving from dependence to independence, from adolescence to young adulthood, from college to career.

For those of you in the graduating class of 1993, everyone at THE BLACK COLLEGIAN, your families, your friends, the community of African scholars and academicians everywhere, salute you. Know that you are unique, but that you are not alone. We welcome you to a world where your talents and knowledge and strong African consciousness and commitment are so desperately needed. Prepare to be challenged anew, to study anew, to be tested anew. Prepare to commence and say goodbye to yesterday.

Linda Bates Parker is director of Career Development and Placement at the University of Cincinnati.
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Title Annotation:Afro-American students update the graduation ceremony
Author:Parker, Linda Bates
Publication:The Black Collegian
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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