On the weekend of April 29, about 5,000 University undergraduates will become alumni, according to the University’s statistics on graduation rates. In a crowd of that size, it can be easy to feel lost.
For this reason, many students will also participate in separate commencements designed for specific multicultural groups within the University.
Most students participate in smaller communities at the University but have never been able to incorporate that kinship into the larger graduation ceremony. Minority groups across campus, therefore began to hold separate commencements — including the Black Celebratory, La Celebracion Latina and the Lavender Graduation.
The oldest of the three, Black Celebratory — or Black Celeb — began in 1993 to “celebrate the commonalties and differences that characterize the experiences of African Americans and other students at the University,” according to Black Celeb’s website. Funded by the Office of Academic and Multicultural Initiatives, a committee of students, faculty and staff gather to create a memorable last semester for the black graduating class.
Black Celeb’s planning committee not only decides on the keynote speaker, student speakers and the recipient of the Cornerstone Award — which is given to a faculty member that has had significant impact on the black student community — but it also plans social events, such as bowling nights and ski trips that offer the entire black community an opportunity to relish the last few months with their fellow graduating seniors.
This year, the keynote speaker will be University alum Kenya Ayers — a psychologist, educator, entrepreneur and author who will address the positive results that arise from the difficulties of being a black student at the University.
“The graduating seniors wanted to encompass the experience they’ve had here and what they feel like the University has been for them. It’s been a difficult journey, especially for African Americans, but some good has come out of it. (A) juxtaposition, I think, aptly describes the black experience at the University,” LSA junior and Planning Committee volunteer Cecelia Calhoun said.
“Black Celeb is a wonderful event to have, and it’s more intimate than the larger commencement ceremony,” Calhoun added. “Sometimes, in a large university environment, graduation can be daunting because it’s very formal and enforced. Black Celeb atmosphere is different — It’s very warm, inviting and familiar, and being able to walk across the stage with friends is a wonderful opportunity.”
Calhoun said that while she noticed the larger University body assumes that Black Celeb is an exclusive event, it was actually created to provide inclusiveness.
“To my knowledge, I’ve had some people say that it’s separatist, but anyone can participate,” she said. “I want to emphasize that these graduations aren’t exclusive. I don’t care where you come from, if you identify with the black community, you’re more than welcome to participate.”
La Celebración Latina Director Sylvia Mayers said the graduation ceremony created for the Latino community is not exclusive because Latino students can identify with other ethnic communities while still considering themselves Latino.
“The Latino community is a little bit different because you get students that really identify with their (Latino) identity, but you also have those that have mixed feelings,” Mayers said. She added, “You don’t have to be Latino to participate.”
In 1999, six years after Black Celeb began, OAMI responded to the requests of the Latino community to have a commencement ceremony that recognized Latin students’ specific cultural contributions to the University as well.
“Students were the people who wanted to get this going,” Mayers said. “They were graduating and wanted something similar to Black Celeb, in particular, the same emphasis on their culture. It’s just an opportunity to highlight the Latino community or members who feel they’re a part of it. We have students who are in Black Celeb that also come to La Celebración to show support or feel that they are also a part of the Latino community.”
As with Black Celeb, each year a committee is composed of students, as well as OAMI staff and faculty, to decide on a theme for the ceremony and choose a keynote speaker.
“This year, the theme is ‘Beyond Academia; ¿Y Ahora Qué?’ Translated, it means ‘What’s the next step in our lives?’ and the focus is on civic responsibility,” Mayers said. “We try to (get alumni) for keynote speakers if possible, and they often come for free,” she added. This year University alum Cecilia Muñoz will be speaking at the ceremony. Muñoz is a part of the executive staff of the National Council of La Raza — an activist organization for Latinos.
Mayers said that similar to Black Celeb, La Celebración is a small and personal ceremony.
“La Celebración highlights the efforts and support the University has given to the community … as well as the students’ individual achievements.”
Mayers said that although the ceremony has grown tremendously since it began, it remains an intimate celebration for students and their families.
“Students are getting more involved, and in light of minority retention problems, we try to have it here as an incentive for people to want to graduate. I’ve had students tell me all the time that it has helped to keep them focused.”
Despite the other commencements that are scheduled on the same day as La Celebración, Latino students are still planning to attend it. LSA senior Andrea Coronil said she is looking forward to it and has a friend returning from a study-abroad program to participate.
“I think it’s an important event because as Latinos, we try to create a sense of community among the Latino students,” Coronil said. “La Celebración is a way of sharing (our sense of community) together and our accomplishments at the University, especially as a minority group.”
If the separate ceremony were not held, Coronil added, “I think it wouldn’t be as much of a sense of closure in terms of college and in terms of being a part of the Latino community. It’s a celebration of my cultural identity.”
Ronnie Sanslow, a staff member of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Affairs Office, started the Lavender Graduation in 1995 to provide a commencement for students who identify with the LGBT community. Lavender graduations are now performed at universities across the country, even though the tradition began in Ann Arbor.
The Lavendar graduation was started because “there were cultural heritage celebrations but nothing for LGBT students so that they could leave the University with a positive last experience. They too (could feel valued) for their contributions to the University,” Lavender Graduation Director Jennifer Almquist said.
Almquist said the Lavendar Graduation is different from other ceremonies because sexual orientation and gender identity are factors that are not readily visible. She said the ceremony is an opportunity for students who are not involved in the LGBT community but who are out in their personal lives to celebrate their identities in a public setting.
The ceremony itself is similar to other commencements, except that students write an introduction that will be read as they walk across the stage and receive their Lavender Degree — which represents their connection to the community.
“This year, we have re-instituted an award for leadership,” Almquist said. “So part of the ceremony is going to be honoring leaders in the community, outstanding group of the year and outstanding ally of the year. We have also planned a guest speaker, the Program on Intergroup Relation’s associate director, Roger Fisher, who is a tremendous ally to the community.”
Graduating LSA senior Andrea Knittel, who said she has been active in the LGBT community for the majority of her time at the University, said she chose to participate in the Lavender Graduation because the University commencement “is big and impersonal.”
“I like the idea of celebrating with my community,” Knittel said. “I don’t know a lot of people, but at Lavender Graduation, I’ll know just about everybody who walks with me. The opportunity doesn’t come along often.”
Knittel said she wanted to bring a sense of closure to her identity outside of the academic realm.
“To be recognized as a member of the community is important. I’ve been involved in a lot of student organizations and in LGBT activism, and as I’m graduating, I feel like my academic career is at a turning point and my activism is at a turning point. So it’s more of a commencement from not so much academic things, but activities that I’ve participated in.”
But Knittel also acknowledged the value of the larger graduation ceremony.
“The larger graduation ceremony is important to show that while we have these differences, we still have something in common — we’re all wearing caps and gowns,”
The most important thing, Almquist said, is for students to find whichever ceremony they need to bring finality to their time at the University.