Monday 7 June 2010


Do you think that I have had enough of graduation ceremonies by now? By no means, let me return to this fascinating subject and wrap up the loose ends left over from the earlier blog posting on the same theme. In particular, two questions remain to be answered.

Firstly, when coming back to Stuart Street after that intensive afternoon of graduation delights on 15 May, I started to ask myself why on earth I had not observed this sequence of ceremonies, when reading the campus’ calendar of events the week before. A brief glance at internet resolved the riddle: all of that weekend, as well as of the following week, meetings, called COMMENCEMENT CEREMONIES, were scheduled, which I earlier had interpreted as meetings with prospective students to celebrate their forthcoming enrolment at campus. Little did I suspect that “Commencement” was the UCB secret code for “Graduation”, in line with good old tradition in revered academia to invent fancy and counter-intuitive words for this final ceremony. For instance, at the London School of Economics, another revered institution, the graduation ceremony, which I had the privilege of attending last year, is called “Presentation”!

Secondly, how is it possible to present graduation diplomas in a grand ceremony to students even before the final examinations have been graded and it is assured that students actually have graduated? The answer to this one will have to wait a little while longer.

Now armed with a better understanding of the schedule of graduation events I saw, on the calendar, that a gathering called “Commencement Convocation” was scheduled for the following Sunday, in a cosy sounding edifice called Haas Pavilion. When I looked at the campus map I realised that I knew this building well, albeit under another name, “Harmon Gym”. As student in the ‘seventies, I had passed through its entrance all working days at lunch time to access the swimming pools. So I decided on the spot to participate in that interesting sounding meeting.

As I recalled the building, it had a very impressive entrance with high portals and pronounced reliefs, showing muscular athletes of various disciplines, in a style common to sports palaces built in the ‘thirties. When going to my swimming leisure, I usually took to the left after entering the lofty arches, knowing that the main construction to the right contained various halls for gymnastics and ball games, such as basketball. So I expected the ceremony to take place in one of these larger halls, with room for maybe a hundred graduates and twice as many parents.

So you can imagine my surprise, when I arrived at Sproul Plaza on Sunday afternoon, about half an hour before the start of the ceremony, and saw an immense queue of black capes assembling itself on the square and slowly winding down past lower Sproul Plaza in the general direction of the Pavilion. No question of counting the participants in their hundreds, this queue contained some THOUSANDS of graduates. This was the mother of all ceremonies I had the privilege of attending! How on earth could all these hopefuls, not to speak of their festive relatives, expect to find a spot to stay in a, even in the largest, ball room within the Pavilion?

I shouldn’t have worried, the answer would soon be revealed. In the meantime, I hurried down the stairs to Lower Sproul and sprinted past the queue, which seemed longer and longer the closer I came to the Pavilion. When I finally arrived at the portals I saw that this enormous ouroboros-like crowd was supposed to be sluiced into the building via two entrances at its side, leaving the main doors open for relatives and other spectators. The “pêle-mêle” was complete, with spectators zigzagging their way towards the portals, graduates patiently queuing for access to the side doors and, interweaving it all, a large picketing line of university workers fighting for their survival in these times of downsizing and budget finessing.

Astounded by this ruckus I mounted the portals and entered the Pavilion. What a surprise to see the interior of the edifice drastically changed! The whole building had, since my times, been completely hollowed out and a huge arena been shaped within the construction. It was impossible to judge, from the outside, how huge the hall was. But once I had entered the seating area, it became clear that I was looking at a basketball arena with the potential of housing maybe up to 15000 spectators. Whilst I still was pondering this burst of energetic refurbishing, a ceremony slowly began to unfold on the football-sized floor below. It started with a stately procession of aptly dressed faculty, across the expanse and up to a colossal tribune that had been raised for the occasion at the floor’s short end.

Shortly after, music started to throb through the prevalent loudspeakers and Chancellor Robert Birgeneau greeted the graduates in his welcoming address. From where I was sitting, he looked rather minute in the distance, but a huge screen was raised above the tribune, showing an enlarged view of the speakers on the podium. You can admire Robert’s attire on the title picture. Soon after, waves after waves of happy graduates came wallowing in, more than TWO THOUSAND in all, marching in a steady procession, some trying to keep a calm poise, but most of them waving, jumping, hooting and generally exhibiting their utmost joy over being part of this colossal event. As they reached the podium, in two lines, two speakers were acclaiming their names quickly and efficiently, one after another, hands were shaken with worthy dons, a photograph was taken in immediate succession and back to the floor they went to take their orderly seat. All this was happening in a continuously boisterous noise, with names being called, graduates being applauded by friends, music being heard in between and parents screaming, applauding, crying and laughing all at once. In short, a most astounding spectacle evolved before my excited eyes and ears.

As the seats on the main floor were gradually being taken by youngsters in black capes and colourfully tasselled caps I started to wonder: was it possible for parents and other relatives to recognize and properly applaud their own offspring from afar at the bleachers? How to single them out in this rowdy “kalabalik”? I should not have worried. Sitting beside me was a friendly couple that had come from afar, from the arid desert regions of Southern California, to witness their only daughter’s greatest day. Starting a conversation with them, I offered to take their child’s picture if they would be able to point her out to me. Well, it took an hour’s patient (from my side increasingly impatient) waiting, until the blessed moment arrived. But it was worth waiting for. The two pictures that follow tell us more, I believe, than thousand words, showing, as they do, a rich current of deep love and satisfaction passing from bleacher to floor and back.

After two hours’ defiling, all the graduates had finally entered the floor and it was time for the ceremonies proper to start, in this arena with close to SIX THOUSAND participants, with the national hymn being sung whilst everyone was standing, right arm across breast; with the Chancellor raising his sonorous voice once again; with the key note speaker being welcomed; and so on. I have to admit that I was getting a bit satiated with ceremony after a while and chose to discreetly sneak out of the convocation to get some fresh air and, as an afterthought, to get some pictures of the crowd finally wallowing back out from the Pavilion. Outside were placed a range of enticing tables, filled with sandwiches and fruits, for the Chancellor’s post-ceremonial reception. However, before savouring the delicacies, let me suggest that you venture a glance at the little video below, which more aptly may describe the incredible procession of graduates on this grand day. You simply have to double click on the address that follows:

For those of you who simply can't get enough of graduation ceremonies, here is the real thing: more than one hour of video looking at this enormous event:

At long last it was all over and masses came streaming down through the main and side portals. I am sorry to say that myself, as well as relatives that had left the ceremony prematurely, had already advanced deeply into the supplied refreshments by then. But nobody seemed to mind, the main thrust of the party was in the mingling of the crowd.

I could not resist the urge to participate fully in the mingling, although not being accompanied by a graduating youngster, since this provided me with the opportunity to sample, with my camera, a potpourri of mementos from this great day, for you, as well as myself, to enjoy. Let us stop here with the words and let the pictures talk for themselves, as the afternoon is gradually fading into evening and the masses are slowly dissipating into small parties, ready to head home after a day, and indeed years, well done. Again, well done, all you graduates from this eventful ceremony of 16 May 2010!

But wait! We have still some unfinished business to attend to. Don’t go away after having savoured the potpourri. There is more to come after the pictures!

Now back to the thread of our tale! At the beginning of this post, we had put the question, how it was possible to present graduation diplomas in a grand ceremony to students even before the final examinations have been graded and it was assured that students actually had graduated. After some discrete research it emerged that graduation ceremonies at UCB, at least the general ceremony we just witnessed, do not present any diplomas at all to the graduates. In their hand is put only a memorabilium of the event. Furthermore, presumptive participants in the ceremonies have to declare, already in mid-April, their INTENT to graduate, for being able to participate. Even if they would subsequently fail to meet one or the other prerequisite for graduation, having to repeat an exam in autumn, nothing would prevent them from participating in the ceremony. Those who actually HAD met all the conditions will of course receive a diploma eventually, but only about three months after the fact, sent to them rather unceremoniously through the mail.

Another peculiarity in the American graduation system, as practised in Berkeley at least, is that students can participate in more than one ceremony. Typically, each department, program and school would hold its own ceremony, as we saw in the case of the School of Information. In addition, most of them, at least the seniors, participate also in the general Convocation, which we had the pleasure of experiencing in the present post.

Did I say that Berkeley students could participate in up to two graduation ceremonies? This is not all! You may recall the story of the Latin party, with Mariachi music and rattles, which we met in the second to last post (“Happy Ending ...”). The day after the general convocation ceremony I strolled into the César Chavez Centre to talk to Mrs. Lupe Gallegos-Diaz, Director of Chicano/Latino Affairs at UCB. To my surprise she informed me that I had missed the single most exotic event during the convocation week: the Chicano/Litano graduation ceremony! What I had thought to be informal post-ceremonial activities, when I saw the noisy Latinos on 15 May late afternoon, was actually the run-up to yet another graduation ceremony, scheduled at the Greek Theatre later that evening. So, not only can a student be graduated at his department and through the general convocation, he also can be graduated as Member of his ethnical group. This we can only call “Embarras de Richesse” great style à la Berkeley. Happy are the parents indeed, who can fête their off-springs in up to three great ceremonies!

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