Congrats to the Grads!

June is the month for graduations, the completion of studies, both for high school and college/university students.

So what does a typical American graduation look like?

Most graduation ceremonies have two parts: (1) an awarding of degrees, where students come up and receive their diploma (certificate of graduation) from some school official; and (2) a speech, often by someone well known, called a commencement address.

These commencement addresses are usually 15-25 minutes long, and often contain advice to the graduates on how to live their lives.

For example, when I graduated from the University of Southern California, we had a former politician and vice-presidential candidate (Jack Kemp) give the commencement address. (I don’t remember anything he said.)

Actors, famous writers, and other celebrities are also sometimes invited by colleges to give these short speeches. Even the president of the United States gives commencement addresses.

At nearly every graduation ceremony (event), you’ll see graduating students wearing a cap and gown.

For high school students and college undergraduates (students earning a four-year degree), the “cap and gown” is the hat (cap) and robe (gown; like a dress) that a student wears to graduate.

The gown is typically black, but can also be the school colors, the colors that represent a school.

The cap can be different designs, but the most common one is what’s called a mortarboard (see photo), which is a hat with a flat, square top.

On top of the mortarboard is a tassel attached by a button at the center. A tassel is a decoration of loose threads (like strings) that are gathered or held together at one end, and worn hanging down over the brim or edge of the mortarboard.

At a graduation ceremony, the tradition is to let the tassel hang down from the mortarboard on the right-hand side at the start of the ceremony. When students receive their diploma, they move the tassel to the left side showing they’ve graduated.

After all of the students have received their diplomas, another tradition (but only in some schools) is for the students to throw their caps into the air to celebrate. Good luck finding your own cap again!

If you graduate with what we’d call a “higher degree” or “post-graduate” degree, such as a Master’s or Ph.D. (doctorate), the graduation ceremony is slightly different.

For these students, there is another part of the graduation gown called the hood.

Normally when we use the word “hood,” we mean a piece of material shaped like a half circle attached to the top of your jacket that goes over your head, either to protect the head or just to look cool.

A “hoodie” (also spelled “hoody”) is a sweatshirt (casual shirt usually made of thick cotton material) with a hood that is very popular in the U.S.

However, the hood that is part of the graduation gown doesn’t go over the head. Instead, it is a piece of colored and decorated fabric that is worn over the neck and hangs down the back of the graduation gown so that the “colors” show.

The color of the hood has special meaning. It is used to identify the type of degree you receive and your major (course of study). Different majors (sciences, humanities, education, etc.) have different colors.

That’s a brief look at American graduations. How are things different where you live? Do graduates also wear a cap and gown?


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