Commencement Traditions at Smith

Tyra Wu ’19
Features Editor

Every school has annual traditions surrounding commencement; however, as can be expected from a Seven Sisters school, Smith has more than a few quirky traditions. Since the beginning, Smith has chosen to subvert norms.  At Smith’s first Commencement ceremony in 1879, caps and gowns were considered ill suited to the pioneering spirit of the college. Although this dress has become accepted over time, there are still plenty of unique traditions that take place during Commencement Weekend.

The Diploma Circle:

Rather than being called on stage by last name or alphabetically as most colleges choose to do, Smith students are called by house. During the ceremony students are presented with a random diploma. After the ceremony ends, students meet on the Laura Scales and Franklin King terrace and form a large ring. They then pass the diplomas around the circle. When each student receives their diploma, they step out of the circle. This tradition, originally called the “Great Ring” or the “Magic Circle” dates back to 1911.

The Smith College Mace:

The Smith College mace, which is carried at the head of the academic procession, was given to the college in honor of Florence Macdonald ’32. The Macdonald crest and the Grecourt Gates are carved onto both sides of the mace. It also bears a dedication to Macdonald and the college motto – “to virtue, knowledge” – in classical Greek. The names of the college presidents are carved into the shaft. The mace was designed by Elliot M. Offner, who taught at Smith from 1960 until 2004.


Commencement begins with the Baccalaureate, which is a celebration led by seniors and the Dean of Religious Life. During one of Smith’s oldest traditions, each degree recipient is awarded with laurels.

The Alumnae Parade:

The alumnae parade began in 1909 and evolved from the tradition of alumnae classes extending greetings to the senior class and to each other. While alumnae classes from previous years wore varied colorful costumes, the alumnae now dress uniformly in white with sashes in their class color.

Ivy Day and Illumination Night:

The class of 1884 was the first class to plant ivy as part of the ceremonies. During Ivy Day, which takes place the day before Commencement, alumnae escort seniors in a parade around campus. The seniors plant ivy, which symbolizes the lasting connection between the college and its graduates. During Illumination Night, the campus is lit only by colored paper lanterns.

Ivy Day Awards Convocation:

Since 1879, convocation has been a part of commencement. The original ceremony included the daily chapel followed by a special address by the president. However, over the years, this event has come to include recognition of retiring faculty members and announcement of student prizes and gifts to the college from past classes. 

As silly as they may seem, Commencement traditions bring the Smith community – past and present – together and continue to do so. 

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