Graduation as rite of passage

Graduation, also known as convocation, commencement, invocation of general admission, is a time that every learned person looks forward to. The whole idea of graduation is believed to have started in the 12th Century, introduced by scholastic monks who wore robes during the entire graduation ceremony. It has kept on evolving ever since.

Scholars, especially anthropologists, consider graduation to be a rite of passage.  A rite of passage is a ritual that marks a change from one stage of life to the next in a person’s social life. On the auspicious graduation day, the former candidate students are addressed as graduands and by the end of the ceremony, they are called graduates. As fast as Saul of Tarsis transforming into St. Paul, the Apostle of Christ!

Graduation as a rite of passage is different from other rites of passage such as birth, adulthood, marriage, the coming of age, and death.

“Graduation is a significant stage of development from childhood to adulthood because one comes out with new ideas that they can use to improve the world.

When compared with the other rites of passage, they have to do with one’s complete change of bodily state such as death and birth, and lifetime commitments such as marriage,” says Prof. Stephen Noll, Vice Chancellor of Uganda Christian University Mukono.

As a rite of passage, graduation celebrates many years of hard work. “People put a lot of effort in their graduation ceremonies in Uganda because they sacrifice a lot of money for the education and because compared to their counterparts in the West who have had the formal education system for thousands of years, it brings a lot of excitement.

Therefore, when a Ugandan looks back at the poverty they face and yet they managed to go to school, there is need for one to celebrate,” adds Prof. Noll.


Like any ritual, the graduation ceremony has certain essential symbols. The one symbol that is used during this rite of passage is the mace. The mace is that thick stick that is usually carried by the university or college student leader at the ceremony during the procession made by the heads of the university and the guests of honour before the graduation ceremony kicks off.

“The mace is a symbol that shows the authority of the Chancellor. It prepares the students for the graduation ceremony which is their final rite of passage in education,” says Prof. Senteza Kajubi, the retired Vice Chancellor of Nkumba University and Makerere University.

Like any other rite of passage, such as marriage, that has special clothes, graduation involves dressing up in special robes, hoods and caps. The hood was originally a functional garment worn to shield the head from the elements of weather like coldness.

It is believed to have been first worn by priests and monks who also used it as begging basket for alms. School-going children in the Middle Ages also wore hoods to protect themselves from the cold weather. Since priests were held in high respect for their knowledge, the hood represented the highest level of intelligence. Hoods come in different colours to show one’s course of specialisation.

“These colours are not supposed to be necessarily uniform, every university uses colours of their choice for their given faculties,” explains Prof. Kajubi.

The graduation gown grew from the tradition of the priestly robe which symbolises a privileged position and possession of composure. Both the graduation cap and gown trace their roots back to medieval times. In most countries, including Uganda, the PhD holders wear a different colour from the rest of the graduands, which is usually red or green. The other graduands in Uganda wear black gowns.


Another symbol is the class ring. The use of rings as symbols of protection and eternal life were used mainly in the Egyptian and Roman empires. In ancient Europe, rings were worn by the wealthy only. They were used as symbols of wealth, success and belonging to a special group.

Today class rings are mainly used in European schools as an outward symbol of school pride. They also symbolise a student’s entry into the world of adulthood and are used as good luck charms.This symbol of graduation is mainly used in Europe and the USA. Ugandans have not yet absorbed this tradition of wearing the class ring.

The graduation cap is of two categories: the mortarboard/trencher cap and the Tudor bonnet/tam. The mortarboard is worn by the ordinary graduands and the Tudor bonnet or tam is worn by the PhD holders. Both the mortarboard and the Tudor bonnet must be the same colour as the gown.

The mortarboard and the Tudor bonnet both have the tassel. The tassel is usually made of a cluster of threads that hung on a button that is centered in the middle of the hat. These caps represent success and intelligence.


In Uganda, like all over the world, formats of graduation ceremonies vary from university to university or from college to college. They are not uniform because every university has a different academic calendar and culture.

“Every graduation ceremony has its own format. In some universities, the certificates, diplomas and degrees are awarded first before the official speeches. While in the other universities, the speeches come first and then the awards ceremony come last,” explains Prof. Kajubi.

But what is uniform is the etiquette of a formal invitation for the graduand; the song and music ceremonies that include the national anthem and anthem of the institution;graduation decorations that display the school colours, logo and symbol of the institution; a definite seating order, a podium, the academic procession; and speeches.

The academic procession includes both academic staff and graduands and is led by persons holding instruments of authority, like the mace or a scroll. Another popular ritual is the tossing of caps in the air to symbolise the excitement of growth in knowledge.

During the awards ceremony, one ritual that is performed by all the universities despite the difference in the ceremonial order is the laying of the Chancellor’s cap on the PhD holders’ heads. That act is known as doffing.

The Chancellor can only lay his cap on the PhD holders’ heads because they are less in number unlike the bachelor’s and master’s degree holders who are many, explains Kajubi.


The terms bachelor’s, master’s and PhD hold a lot behind them. According to Prof. Noll, the terms bachelor’s, and not spinster’s; and master’s, but not mistress’ are used because in the ancient times when education had just started, it was only the men that went to school. These terms are also used as generic terms, just like mankind is used to refer to both men and women.

“The term Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) means that one has acquired general wisdom of the entire subject basing on all the aspects of life that relate to it. The term master’s degree means that one has attained full knowledge of the subject. That is, they have mastered their specific subject,” explains Prof. Noll.


During the graduation ceremony, there is always that time when the academically excellent students are awarded. This is known as the baccalaureate ceremony. The first baccalaureate ceremony is said to have been held at Oxford University in UK in 1432.

During this ceremony, the best overall student, who is known as the valedictorian, was expected to give a speech known as the valediction. The valediction speech contained the highlights of the ups and downs they went through as a class and it highlighted their hope for a successful future.

This also takes place in Uganda at the end of awarding degrees to First Class students. The best overall student gives a speech on receiving his/her award.

Back in 1432 when the baccalaureate ceremony had just started, it was held separately from the entire graduation ceremony that involved all the graduands. As time went on, different universities found it difficult to hold two functions of graduation and the ceremonies were merged.


Graduation is not only for those that have gone through university and college. Today, even kids aged three to five years undergo graduation ceremonies from kindergarten to primary school.

“Some children join kindergarten when they cannot speak. Others come in when they can only speak their local languages. When it comes to learning how to write, they grow from scribbling to actual writing. In deed this calls for a child to graduate and celebrate,” says Ms. Karungi Charity, the Headmistress of Kitante Nursery School.

This explains why many Ugandan nursery schools take time to make graduation gowns and caps for the young ones and even organise the entire ceremony. Secondary schools in many countries also hold graduation ceremonies.


There is no rite of passage that ever came to conclusion without some bit of feasting and merrymaking. In Uganda, most graduands organise big-budget graduation parties. In the USA and Europe, people do not make a big deal out of their graduation parties any more because, as Prof. Noll points out, it has come to be taken for granted.

Other sources:
www.brownielocks.com, www.associatedcontent.com, www.netglimse.com


© 2016 Observer Media Ltd