Under the Cap: a new grad looks back on Commencement 2011

That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you.
                                      -T.H. White, The Once and Future King

By Sean McAvoy ’11 M.A.R.

The Payne Whitney Gymnasium is, as the Yale tour guides will tell you, the second-largest indoor gym in the world.  What they will not tell you, however, is that Payne Whitney is the beginning of the end of your time at Yale.  The gym, in the weeks before graduation, is the distribution point for the cap and gown each student wears.  Receiving the robe, hood, and tasseled hat at Payne Whitney is the start of a process that ends with receiving the diploma on the Quad.  Once the hood is in hand you know that it is final.

RobinsonWhile each person began Commencement by picking up robes at the gym, Commencement itself started with graduation rehearsal, held on the drizzling Friday morning of May 20.  Associate Dean of Students Dale Peterson and Director of Career Counseling Susan Olson ’93 M.Div. led us through the logistics of lining up, processing, and keeping in the correct order, amongst the rows of empty chairs on the Quad.  Marqand Chapel Liturgical Coordinator Christa Swenson pulled aside those of us participating in the next day’s Commencement Worship, running us through the program under the shelter of a tent as the students who were not a part of the worship made a beeline for tables laden with pizza.  The rain was inconsistent and disagreeable; we all laughed as Dean Peterson hoped aloud that the weather would hold out for the weekend.

The sun shone on Saturday for the Berkeley Commencement ceremony, where students and faculty took advantage of the improved light and posed for a formal group portrait on the steps of Marquand.  Berkeley conferred its awards and certificates in a joint ceremony with the Lutheran Studies program. Afterwards, Christian Brost, an exchange student from Germany, stood to the side translating Latin into English, to the amusement of the recipients who couldn’t read their awards.  The reception following at the Berkeley Center was relaxed, with graduates, families, and various others pressed on the roof deck, enjoying the twilight.

What hopes that the weather would continue improving were dashed the next day, Sunday, when we held Commencement Worship in the Quad.  The weather was again overcast, chilled and damp.  We wore our academic robes for the first official time, and some posed with the truly strange clothing, laughing, as we waited for the service to start. Throughout the service, some of us brought forth banners to place on the rostrum of Marquand.  The banners came in twos, and each pair was the same hue.  At the end, the dais resembled nothing less than the grounds outside of a knight’s pavilion, lined with the standards of our class.

Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Emilie Townes preached an energizing sermon charging us to bring the Gospel to the world with unflagging vigor. Shakira Sanchez-Collins ’11 M.Div. and I, along with our class agents, presented the Class Gift, which Dean Harold Attridge accepted on behalf of the school, in the form of a symbolic, oversized check. Our agents did incredible work, and our class was the most participating class ever, a point of pride for us, as we committed to giving back to the school that had given us so much.  The seats were about half full of parents and relations, and a steel drum band from New Haven’s St. Luke’s Episcopal Church accompanied the choir, adding an upbeat tempo that we all appreciated.

WorshipMonday was Yale’s Commencement Day, beginning for YDS at 8 a.m. with a Eucharist service over which Bishop F. Percy Goddard Professor of Liturgical Studies and Pastoral Theology Bryan Spinks presided, preaching a sermon that left some in tears.  Afterwards, we donned our robes and tassels and assembled on the Quad before walking downtown, in file, along Prospect Street, to the beat of a group of African drummers, which kept our spirits high.  Led by Craig Robinson ’11 M.Div., who carried the school’s ensign, and our class marshals, carrying white staves, we walked through air damp and cold, hoping the rain would hold off.  Our mood was festive, for Commencement was not just the capstone to our time at the Divinity School but also the closing ceremony of a four-day marathon of family, friends, and events that was leaving us exhausted, and we were happy the time for graduating had finally arrived.

Outside Woolsey Hall, we passed a group handing out lollipops and water, which kept us occupied and refreshed as we gathered on Cross Campus, surrounded by the other professional schools and some of the undergraduate colleges. We milled about with our peers, admiring each other’s decorated mortarboards, wondering what each color hood meant.  Music was pink, Forestry russet, Management blue.  Ours were scarlet, the color of our seal.  Pictures, posed and candid, were taken, and the African drum band added to the celebratory mood, playing a jubilant set for the crowd.

We were afforded pride of place in the first rows of seats at the University-wide exercises on Old Campus, which also meant we were the last school to file in, on the heels of the Law School.  On the way into Old Campus, we passed a woman who handed out programs and a robed man, later identified as the procession marshal, who held an academic staff topped by a carved head of a yale, the mythical goat-like creature first mentioned by Pliny the Elder. The yale caused a certain degree of confusion, until someone in the crowd explained what it was.

The ceremony was slow in starting, and to occupy ourselves we texted each other and waved to the cameras scanning the crowd.  University President Richard Levin introduced each honorary doctorate, amongst whom were film director Martin Scorcese, writer Joan Didion, and the man who invented the computer mouse, Douglas Engelbart.  Each school then cheered as its respective marshal was called to receive degrees on behalf of fellow graduates.  Yale College, due to numerical superiority, made the most noise, while the rest of us tried our best, to varying degrees of success.

When the University ceremonies were over, we walked out of Old Campus through Phelps Gate, where parents were handing out flowers, hugging, and slapping backs.  We made our way up Prospect Street in no particular order, in groups of two and three.  Some of us stopped to find family and friends along the way.  Others stopped for coffee, where exhausted baristas refused to pose for pictures, and our friends chided us for taking so long.

DelugeIt started to drizzle on the way back, drops falling in an irregular manner that allowed for hope they would soon subside.  On the lawn of the Quad, families had gathered, ducking under umbrellas and a tent.  Mike Giaquinto, senior administrative assistant to Dean Peterson and truly an unsung hero of YDS, was everywhere at once, keeping things going and adjusting to a myriad of last-minute changes.  The arriving students were called to assemble into their rehearsed lines, M.Div.’s lining up to the right, M.A.R.’s and S.T.M.’s to the left.  A few enterprising graduates produced their own umbrellas, but most of us had only our mortarboards to shield us.

The rain sputtered through the awarding of prizes and the conferral of degrees, and some students left after receiving their diplomas.  But most of us stayed on to cheer those whom two or three years ago we met as strangers, but now know as friends.  Olivia Stewart, a graduating S.T.M. student who received her M.Div last year, was the recipient of the day’s final degree, and held out bravely, though the rain grew heavier, earning a final set of hurrahs for her gumption and resilience.

As the ceremony ended, the rain finally let loose in torrents, drenching the Quad and sending everyone scurrying to shelter under tents and covered walkways.  The caterers bustled everywhere as hallways inside the Quad became a traffic jam of graduates and their families.  Students hugged, introduced their parents to their friends, their friends to each other, and took off their robes, now wet and heavy with rain.  Everyone wore the expression of someone who had completed a fixed schedule and was now uncertain of what to do next. 

For all of the celebration of Commencement Weekend, all the pomp and circumstance, there was not much time for reflection.  That would come later, in our private moments, as we thought of what we had learned and why, and as our minds turned to the experiences shared amongst those of us who left our banners on the steps of the chapel as we made our way into the world.

Posted: 06/03/2011