Smith College’s annual commencement ceremony begins like any other: Graduating seniors at the women’s liberal-arts college are called up one by one to collect their diploma from the president. Perhaps some students exchange a wink with the regalia-clad honorary-degree recipients nearby as they stride across a platform overlooking the dorms they’d for years called home; others may pause to flip their cap’s tassel while blowing a kiss to the sea of parents who have long awaited this milestone commemorating their daughter’s metamorphosis from undergraduate to alumna.
Except the moment, technically, hasn’t happened quite yet: The name, degree, and accolades printed inside each padded holder seldom belong to the woman who receives it. They very likely belong, rather, to one of her nearly 700 classmates.
So begins Smith’s more-than-a-century-old tradition, known as the Diploma Circle. Once the final name is called, the graduates proceed to a grassy area on campus where they, with the help of volunteer faculty marshals and students, convene into a handful of concentric circles. Each graduate then proceeds to pass diploma after diploma to the right, assembly-line style, exiting only when she receives the correct one.
American colleges cherish their weird commencement traditions. At Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, graduating seniors participate in “the sing,” singing the same songs they once performed in unison at the beginning of their college careers, repeated now in front of hundreds of their professors and family members. At Wells College in Aurora, New York, a series of early-morning fire alarms summon students to the campus’s historic sycamore tree, where underclassmen commemorate their robed, graduating counterparts by singing the “Wells Congratulations Song.” At Wellesley College outside Boston, seniors race down a paved, quarter-mile course, each rolling a thigh-high wooden hoop; the woman who finishes fastest, legend goes, will be the first to achieve happiness and success. At Wabash College, a men’s college in central Indiana, seniors leave with both a diploma made out of sheepskin and a red rose, meant to honor the graduating men’s mothers.
These traditions amount to more than just silly expressions of collective catharsis. Folkloric rituals like these throughout the college trajectory can create a sense of purpose, comfort, and belonging for students who upon matriculating can find themselves navigating “tough issues of their age and environment,” concludes Simon J. Bronner, an American studies and folklore professor at Penn State, in his 2012 book about the role of campus ritual in the development of American culture. If college is a rite of passage, a commencement represents the metaphorical death of the child who’d embarked on college and her rebirth “as an empowered member of a special community,” Bronner writes. In other words, “commencement” is just that, a ceremony symbolizing the commencement of adulthood in earnest.
At Smith, newly minted alumnae laugh and hug and embrace the inevitable disarray while that death and rebirth happens as if in slow motion, the circles shrinking in size and number until a single ring—and, finally, a single pair, each holding the other’s diploma—remains.“It’s kind of like organized chaos,” says Elizabeth Jamieson, a chemistry professor and faculty marshal who herself participated in this ritual when she graduated from Smith in 1994, recalling the nerve-racking euphoria she felt as someone who lasted until the very last circle. “But perhaps because the order doesn’t matter, the atmosphere is especially joyous and special.” The process is all about community and connectedness, core values that the liberal arts—women’s colleges in particular—seek to promote.
Jamieson says the ceremony reinforces the feeling that “once you’re a Smithie, you’re always a Smithie.” But in requiring each graduate to “help hundreds of [her] peers accomplish this very technical task of getting their actual diploma,” it might speak to something even deeper than that too. By withholding the one tangible reward of a graduate’s bachelor’s coursework in the precise moment she’d expect to receive the coveted object, the Diploma Circle emphasizes that college isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be, just some transactional process that treats the ends—a degree—as more valuable than the means: a postsecondary education and the relationships that come with it.