by Dr. Charlie McCormick
Schreiner University President
Last year, in the sweltering heat of August 2020, Schreiner University held an on-campus, in-person Commencement ceremony. We were one of the few colleges and universities across the country that did so. But having accomplished this last year, we knew we could proceed on schedule with our graduation plans this May. A threat of bad weather caused us to scuttle our plans for an outdoor ceremony, but the Schreiner community rose up together and—in a furious race against the clock—reset the ceremony in the Event Center. From everything I heard and saw, graduates and their families had a wonderful experience.
My favorite moment of graduation is when students, faculty, and staff get organized and lined up for the processional in the Mountaineer Fitness Center (MFC), and the bagpipers start playing from a corner over by the racquetball courts. When the first, long wail of the bagpipes strikes through the din of the conversations, a cheer usually erupts from the graduates. As they begin playing in earnest, the bagpipes are so loud you almost want to cover your ears, and the drumming is so intense you can literally feel it shake your body. They march through the MFC, through all of the graduates and then down the long hall by the gym where the faculty are lined up. We follow them outside and watch them burst into the Event Center as an appropriate announcement of the solemn and celebratory events to come.
In my comments, I remind the audience that ritual shapes all parts of the Commencement ceremony, from the bagpipes to the Benediction. I note that faculty and staff wear their regalia as part of this ritual experience, indicating their degrees, their fields of study, and the institutions at which they learned. The ceremony follows strict protocols to honor the ancient tradition of graduation. Around the world and through time, all moments of passage—and graduation is one of these—are marked by these sorts of ritual elements.
People need rituals when moments of passage evoke fear as we leave what is most familiar to us, and venture out to someplace new. The rituals provide a predictability that helps us feel safe and secure. Of course, moments of passage are liberating as well—reminding us that—as Hamlet tells his friend—
“There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, /
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy…”
Rituals also give us glimpses of what could be and opportunities to embrace the new.
For those of us in higher education, this moment never gets old.
I hope our graduates remember the pomp and pageantry that is associated with the event. But, even more so, I hope they remember how this year’s ceremony represented the unique lessons they have learned about themselves. Schreiner has always believed and unapologetically claimed that we have the most resilient and gritty students at any college or university across the nation.
And this group of graduates had the opportunity to live into that reality. They showed themselves to be individuals of integrity and authenticity, people who were unafraid of participating in their community, critical thinkers who approached their understanding of the world rationally and deliberately, men and women of purpose who intend to make an impact, life-long learners who are perpetually curious, and standard-bearers of all that is good about being a Mountaineer. In a year of uncertainty and turmoil, our graduates illustrated to us that sometimes we are tougher than we realize.
Our robes and hoods are now packed away, the ceremonial mace is now back in its case, and most students have put their diplomas away for safekeeping until they can hang them in their offices. It is easy to forget the experience of graduation. It will be less easy to forget the lessons of this past year. These lessons are now in the DNA of our graduates. I look forward to the ways in which Schreiner graduates will build our post-pandemic world.