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Penn State History Lessons: Commencement

Whether you’re in denial or not, the end of the semester is fast approaching. If you’re a senior, congratulations! You’ve made it through four (or five, maybe six) years of exams, all-nighters, and group projects. If you’re not a senior, well, here’s hoping that you’ll get to don that navy cap and gown some day.

Penn State has seen a lot of graduations in its day, especially when you consider the university boasts the largest alumni association in the country. However, Penn State’s graduation didn’t always happen like it does today. Obviously, Eisenhower and the BJC didn’t exist in the nineteenth century. So for Onward State’s final history lesson of the school year, I decided to take a look back on the history of commencement at Penn State.

Commencement is a three-day long event this year, with separate colleges having ceremonies all across campus. In the university’s early days, commencement was more than one day as well. But rather than graduating each individual college, Penn State had a “commencement week” filled with all sorts of activities and celebrations to honor the departing class that year.

A Commencement Week Schedule, 1907 (La Vie Archives)

A typical commencement week at Penn State back in the day began on a Saturday night in June. That night, graduating seniors, along with their families and friends, would gather for a variety of musical performances. Commencement week always marked the end of the season for musical groups like the Glee Club and the University Orchestra. The following day, the concerts would continue and a commencement sermon was typically given.

Monday of commencement week was primarily devoted to an event called “Class Day.” Essentially, Class Day was a time for university professors and departments to honor individual student achievements. From what I gathered, Class Day was different than commencement mainly because students spoke on Class Day.

The actual commencement ceremony during the week typically took place on a Wednesday. In addition to the graduating class walking, there was also a celebratory Penn State baseball game. And to top off the evening, the Junior class threw a reception for the graduating seniors in the Armory. According to a June 1, 1892 Free Lancer (the predecessor to the Collegian), that year’s Junior Ball was “one of the most brilliant events of commencement week.”

When it comes to the actual commencement event, the ceremony hasn’t changed too much. Graduating seniors still wear caps and gowns, and still walk across the stage to receive their diplomas. And just like today, a distinguished guest gave a commencement address.

Screen Shot 2015-05-06 at 9.56.14 PM
Commencement in Rec Hall (La Vie Archives)

If we’re being totally honest here, the recent lineups of commencement speakers have not been too impressive. But it didn’t always used to be like that! Some of Penn State’s commencement speakers have been quite notable, including Charles Schwab and President Bill Clinton.

One of the most notable commencement speakers from the twentieth century was another President: Dwight D. Eisenhower. Yes, Ike himself visited the university. In fact, his brother was the Penn State president at the time (presidency must run in Eisenhower blood or something.) He gave the commencement address in 1955 to approximately 25,000 people, according to a June 11, 1955 Collegian article.

His address was broadcasted live over five different radio stations nationwide. Eisenhower’s speech coincided with the centennial celebration of the university. That year, he was awarded Penn State’s first honorary doctorate in law.

President Eisenhower (left) at 1955 Commencement (Penn State University Photo Archives)

Eisenhower’s address was named one of the best commencement speeches ever by NPR. Here’s an excerpt from his speech:

Of course, you men and women venture forth into a world where human nature differs little, if at all, from human nature in 1915 or in the Age of Pericles. Human relations–the art of getting along with the people who work beside you and with those who live thousands of miles away–does not change in its essence with the centuries.

Eisenhower’s message, though spoken sixty years ago, still rings true today. Okay, so maybe the graduates who are preparing to walk across the stage in a few days don’t exactly wear togas like they did in Pericles’ times. But the sentence about human nature and its often unwavering characteristics can be applied to today’s graduates: getting along with one another is the way to go. Take it from Ike. Congratulations to the Class of 2015!

About the Author

Anna Foley

Anna is a senior majoring in Communication Arts & Sciences and Spanish with a minor in Theatre. Yes, she went to Spain. Follow her half-funny thoughts @exfoleyator and send her chain emails at [email protected]


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