The End of an Era: High School Graduation Ceremonies

By Mackenzie Henshaw

The notes of “Pomp and Circumstance” fill the auditorium as Aaron Davidson walks across the stage in his black cap and gown at the Alta High School graduation ceremony to receive the diploma that marks the end of his high school experience and the start of a new beginning. The auditorium is filled with the applause of classmates, teachers, family and friends commemorating the accomplishments he has received along the way, including a 4.0 GPA and honors diploma. This will be Davidson’s last high school memory because after he receives his diploma, he no longer considers himself a “high schooler.” He will officially be a part of the real world, where he will head off to college at University of Colorado-Boulder in the fall. “Walking in graduation is a very surreal feeling,” he says of the experience.

A high school graduate receives their diploma. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A high school graduate receives her diploma. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

High school graduation ceremonies are a rite of passage for students across the world commemorating high school success and presenting students to the future, whether that is the work force, college or technical training. “They give us all who have graduated high school a common ground and experience,” says Nick Carter, who graduated from Madison-Mayodan High School in Madison, North Carolina. According to the United States Education Department, more high school students are graduating on time than ever before. Based on the most recent published data, the United States high school graduation rate is around 78%, an increase from former years. If the graduation continues to increase at this rate, the United States will be on pace to meet a 90% graduation rate by the year 2020, according to an article published on

While there is very little history about the first high school graduation ceremonies, they have been a celebration of achievements for high school seniors for centuries. Traditionally, the ceremonies consist of similar components for most high schools including speeches by class speakers and motivational speeches by alumnae or influential people, the music of ‘Pomp and Circumstance,’ the announcement of graduate names and the procession of graduates dressed in matching caps and gowns to receive their diploma in front of a crowd.

Although a graduation ceremony is one day at the very end of the school year, the work of planning of a ceremony takes place throughout the entire year. Brenda Down has been coordinating the graduation ceremony for South Eugene High School in Eugene, Oregon for over 14 years. “We start by preparing a timeline and review the budget to make sure we have ample money to take care of everything,” Down says. The timeline includes everything from reserving the location and photographers, ordering caps, gowns and diplomas for over 300 graduating students, holding auditions for graduation speeches and providing information to family members about the event and requirements. Down also coordinates everything that takes place on the actual day of the ceremony. “It involves a lot of hours from a lot of people. I am involved in many of the things, plus I attend practice and the graduation and coordinate everything that day,” she adds.

Throughout each ceremony, Down hopes to create a “special event to help students celebrate a milestone in their lives.” And for many high school graduates and former graduates, the ceremony is an occasion that they look forward to as a day of celebration and memories.

Carol Barger graduated from Nebraska Christian High School in 1965 and recalls the anticipation she had for the experience of her high school graduation ceremony. “In all of life, our generation valued and looked forward to graduation,” she says. “We all wanted the joy of hearing ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ and being honored with the announcement of our accomplishment as we were handed the hard-worked for diploma before the parents, friends and professors.”

Nick Carter also recalls the memories he has from graduation day over 30 years later. “I will never forget it,” he says. “It was in the football stadium and about half way through the event three streakers appeared on the field. It was a hoot!”

For others high school graduates, the graduation ceremony seems like a generic ending to the high school experience. “Most schools probably feel their graduation ceremony is unique, but in reality they are all mostly the same,” Down says. “We tell our students the ceremony is as much for their parents as it is for them.”

Jake Crain, who graduated from Opelika High School in Opelika, Alabama in 2008, agrees. “My high school ceremony was just like everyone else’s, but I believe those ceremonies are mostly for the parents,” Crain says. “I went to my brother’s graduation a week ago and it was just like mine. They gave practically the same speech and stuck to the same script as mine did.”

“Little has changed. Cap and gowns, march music, honor student speeches, accolades by educators, motivational speeches for success are the same,” Barger says. “The difference today is apart from the ceremony. Affluence has added lavish all night parties for graduates and the gifts given are more expensive than 50 years ago.”

Today, graduation ceremonies are often expected to go beyond the baccalaureate ceremony and receiving of the diploma, and continue into the night and days after. For many Americans, graduation includes all-night grad parties, receptions and open houses for graduates, and expensive gifts from family, friends and even acquaintances that receive a graduation announcement. For Sean Fernandez, who graduated from Shelton High School in 2011, graduation parties were a way to continue the celebration of accomplishments at the moment they happen. He celebrated his graduation party in the form of a weekend barbeque with family and friends. “Graduation parties are important because I feel as though it’s necessary to celebrate accomplishments when they happen and they can be a lot of fun for those involved,” Fernandez says.

His sister Alicia Fernandez, who graduated from the same high school in 2010, adds, “I don’t think they are necessary for all people to have, but personally, I enjoyed being able to see family and friends after the ceremony.”

In fact, the moments spent celebrating with high school friends and family seem to be a common shared memory and experience of many high school graduates. “The importance for me was all about my friends, not the ceremony itself. I was so focused on everyone going their separate ways, I didn’t particularly care about the ceremony,” says Kathy Dalonzo, who graduated from Stamford High School in Stamford, Connecticut.

Aaron Davidson, from the class of 2013, celebrates with his mother following the graduation ceremony. Photo courtesy of Aaron Davidson.

Aaron Davidson, from the class of 2013, celebrates with his mother following the graduation ceremony. Photo courtesy of Aaron Davidson.

“Looking back at my graduation ceremony, I’d say the most memorable moment was greeting all of my family members afterwards,” Sean Fernandez says. “They were all proud to see me in the cap and gown and it was great to all be gathered together to celebrate.”

When Aaron Davidson receives his diploma from his principal, he moves his tassel from one side of his cap to the other, marking his completion of high school. He then joins the rest of his class as they toss their graduation caps into the air. Following the ceremony he will meet up with his family and friends to celebrate his achievements. All the hard work of high school has paid off and through the graduation ceremony Davidson is now officially a high school graduate of the class of 2013.


Graduation Requirements for Oregon High Schools

The month of June officially marked high school graduation season in Eugene, Oregon where over 1,300 students received their diploma marking the completion of four years of high school education. With increased education standards, Oregon high school graduates are now required to demonstrate greater proficiency in order to receive their diploma at graduation.

Beginning last year, the Oregon State Board of Education changed the high school graduation requirements in order to become “more rigorous” for students to succeed in the changing 21st century. Students are now required to complete more credits in subject areas including English, math, science, and career and technical skills. For the class of 2013, the State Board of Education implemented a new requirement where students must be able to “read and comprehend a variety of text and write clearly and accurately.” These skills were previously being taught in the public school system, but students must now demonstrate their proficiency through standardized tests and work samples to receive their high school diploma.

The increase in requirements is in part due to the low high school graduation rate in the state of Oregon. Based on the most recent published data in 2011, Oregon has the fourth worst high school graduation rate in the nation with just 68% of students earning a diploma in four years. According to Stateline News, Governor John Kitzhaber and Rudy Crew, Oregon’s chief education officer, have set the goal of boosting the graduation rate by requiring every Oregon student to meet certain academic milestones. Oregon’s goal is for “100 percent of Oregonians [to] earn a high school diploma or equivalent” by the year 2025.

In the meantime, Eugene high schools celebrated the achievements of the class of 2013, who met these requirements this year. Eugene high school graduation ceremonies began on Thursday, June 6th and continued through Saturday, June 8th.

Graduation Rates Infographic:

Henshaw_infographic final

An infographic about the graduation rates across the country and in the state of Oregon. Click on the link for full size.

Click to Enlarge

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