Graduation: A Mix of Recognition and Tradition
By Lottie Nilsen / January - April, 2011

Earning a degree is an achievement that triumphantly signals the end of one chapter, while providing a rung on the ladder to the next chapter. As graduation season is upon us, we are reminded that, whether it's a high school diploma, undergraduate or advanced degree, reaching a goal and being recognized for that accomplishment can be both empowering and exhilarating. Even if for a short time, graduation is accompanied by that liberating feeling that can only come with freedom from the obligation of assignments that are due.

When Parkland's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School holds its annual graduation ceremony on June 7, valedictorian Amy Huang and salutatorian Yujie Wu will be honored for their tremendous academic accomplishments. Each will have the honor of addressing their almost 700 classmates, parents and community.

"My favorite part of the graduation ceremony is listening to the students' speeches," said Ann Kowalski, who is serving her fifth year as principal of the school. "I enjoy getting to hear from their hearts what they want to say to their parents and fellow graduates."

The speech of Parkland's Wu, son of Jinxia Liu and Tianxi Wu, will likely include gratitude for the many people who helped him along the way and acknowledgement of the values instilled in him by his immigrant parents. "They emphasized that education will take you places," he said. "I can do things not only for myself, but influence other people, be a part of this country and possibly even change the world with education and hard work."

The symbolism and importance of the graduation ceremony has evolved across generations, reflecting a larger shift in American society, according to Marc VanOverbeke, associate professor of the history of education at Northern Illinois University. One century ago, high school (and, to an even greater extent, college) was an elite institution to which only a small percentage of the population was privileged to attend.

"Graduation ceremonies then were supposed to be a public display of knowledge," VanOverbeke said. "It was almost like a high-stakes exam. The point of it was to get up and give a talk, engage in some sort of disputation. You kind of had to prove to the people who came that you knew something, and that you deserved your degree."

For students like Huang, daughter of Hui Xiong and Jian Huang of Coral Springs, it wouldn't be a stretch to demonstrate knowledge. For her, achieving top status will mark the culmination of four years and countless hours of studying for almost two dozen advanced placement exams. Both Huang and Wu applied for admission to many of the nation's most prestigious colleges and universities.

But at modern graduations, it's not so much about a display of knowledge as it is a celebration mixed with tradition. VanOverbeke continued: "This reflects the fact that high school is now a mass institution. It doesn't take anything away from the accomplishment of getting through high school. And while the valedictorian's speech has an element of that tradition, graduations are just happy celebrations meant to send you on your way to the next step in your journey."

Principal Kowalski, who stresses that Douglas' graduation is a dignified affair, notes that it is an essential recognition for every student who takes part. "The ceremony is important for the child who has achieved so much, as well as the student who has struggled through school," she said. "Walking across that stage and getting a diploma means different things to different students."

A high school degree is now an essential element of a young person's resume, rather than a demonstration that one has reached a pinnacle in life, according to VanOverbeke: "You must have a diploma to get where you want to go, whether that's college, vocational school or somewhere else."

One thing that hasn't changed over time is the importance as a society to have those ceremonies and celebrations. "Sometimes it's not so much about those individuals graduating as it is about a community coming together and reaffirming its values, (showing) that it believes in young people and the future," VanOverbeke said. "Going to graduation, just like going to a high school football game or theater production, is a way of affirming that. It's very much about the public and the community, as much as it is about the individual students."

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