Tag Archives: graduation

Ethiopian-American Graduations

Informant RE is a sophomore in high school from San Jose, California, whose family is originally from Ethiopia. There is a strong Ethiopian diasporic community in San Jose, where much of its traditions live on.


“On graduation parties Ethiopian families are invited by the graduate’s parents to a graduation party, and the parents have to schedule with other parents who have children who are graduating at the same time because they want the parties to be on different days. When they have their set day, they rent out a banquet hall and prepare traditional dishes to serve, but some people also just order it. When people come, you’re supposed to greet them as they come, they give you gifts, then everyone lines up to get food. After the eating, we dance, and we do a lot of different cultural dances. After the dances there are speeches with friends and family, and after the speeches there is more dancing and cake cutting.”


High school graduation is an important liminal period in numerous cultures marking the transition period from school into the workforce. In the United States, high school graduation is traditionally celebrated with an elaborate ceremony hosted by the school in which students wear special garments and walk across a stage to reflect their passage into a new period.


The Ethiopian-American community takes the graduation ceremony a step further with the more elaborate and highly formalized graduation party. As informant RE alluded to, despite having no official text, the folk celebration of the graduation party is solidified into a specific format, from the choice of location — either a banquet hall or a home — to the itinerary — traditional foods, then dancing, then speeches, then dancing again. The Ethiopian-American graduation party is a collective celebration which not only marks the transition of the graduate, but celebrates the shared culture and community that helped the graduate along the way.

The Alma Mater Joke

Background: The informant is a 58 year old man living in Chicago, Illinois. He grew up in Libertyville, Illinois, where he attended the local high school and elementary school. He went to college at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign (currently UIUC – referred to as U of I by the informant). The informant always likes to tell jokes and mentioned one that was prevalent during his time at college. 

Context: The context was while eating, the informant and his son began talking about U of I, as they both attended the school. The informant suddenly appeared to remember a joke he was told as a student. 


BW: Yeah,  I remember this one joke I was told at U of I. It was really popular around all the students. I remember my friend group would always share it. So, there’s the alma mater statue at U of I that all students take pictures at when they graduate. Remember we took a picture with [son] there.

Me: Yeah, it was a statue of a woman, right?

BW: Yep, a motherly figure, and she’s standing up. Okay so it goes,

Everyone at U of I takes a picture in front of the alma mater statue and, um, if there is a picture of a virgin in front of the statue, then she will be sitting down instead of standing. But, see, there are no virgins at U of I, because everyone has been fucked by the University. [laughing].

Me: Oh, wow. Was there any ill will toward the University?

BW: I think it was like the usual anger of students towards their schools. Maybe it be the cost or the classes or being failed in a class, or something like that.


Informant: The informant, laughing at his own joke, shows that it retains its humor for him throughout the decades. It clearly brings back memories of his time at the university and of good humor between him and his friends.

Mine: The joke, while short, represents a few things. First, it directly mentions a graduation tradition done at the school, of taking a picture with the alma mater statue once someone graduates. However, this tradition is turned on its head for vulgar means – more so because the statue is depicting a motherly figure. However, moms have long had their share of mom jokes, notably “your mom” in response to a statement. The statue sitting down upon a virgin being there is almost like the motherly statue sitting down to protect the virgin, as if a mother’s embrace. But then, the punchline hits, and while it’s meant to be funny, it serves to actually highlight how the students felt about the university. While not sure if the joke is still being told, it clearly is a symbol that this time of history, in the 80s, was a period where the university was clearly mocked.

White Formals During Graduation

Background: The informant is a 75 year old female. She grew up in Illinois, attending both high school and college in the state. She graduated from high school in 1962.

Context: When driving in the car, the talk of college graduation arose. Eventually, the conversation shifted to the informant talking about her own graduation a long time ago.


MC: When I graduated high school, in 1962, girls were supposed to wear white formals and the boys wore a dress suit.

Me: Did you carry anything?

MC: Yes, we carried a large bouquet of a dozen red roses. I really wish I still had pictures from back then. I hope I didn’t throw out the wrong album by accident, as that sometimes happens.

Me: So, just to clarify, they were formal dresses?

MC: Yes, I had to wear gloves. Now, these were floor-length formals. They were very beautiful, and my school did this every single year. I am not sure if they still follow the tradition, though. It has been a while since I have looked them up.


Informant: The informant looked back on the tradition fondly, exemplified by how she wished she could look back at it. It was an extremely proud moment for her and the unique dress code made it stand out in her memory.

Mine: White graduation dresses have been a tradition in America for a long time, since about the 1800s. Both high school aged and college aged students might wear white for their graduation. A different spin on it is the need to wear formals and to carry a bouquet of red roses. The vibe of graduation seems more similar to a prom than a graduation. Roses typically symbolize love, and perhaps by carrying them, it showcases the love the girls have for their school. White, meanwhile, is a color of purity. The need for girls to wear white and carry roses encapsulates the era of the 1950’s and 60’s, and now that the roses and the formals have been discarded, it shows a more modern woman who is going to wear a variety of different dresses and not stay confined to a single space.

Smith College “Grateful Gate” Superstition


Smith College is a historically women’s college in Massachusetts. EZ is a current Smith College student.

Main Piece:

“So there’s this gate in the front of campus called the Grateful Gate, and you’re not supposed to walk through it until graduation, so um, I’ve never walked through it yet, and that way hopefully I’ll graduate on time.”


Many colleges and universities have a superstition that involves not interacting with some architectural part of the campus until graduation, with the superstition stating that if one does the superstitious action, one will not graduate on time. In this case, walking through the Grateful Gate is a part of the graduation ceremony at Smith College, so the transgression of the superstition is moving through this action at the improper time. By walking through the gate (metaphorically symbolizing graduation) before the actual completion of studies, the transgressor brings themselves bad luck.

For another college superstition with the punishment of not graduating on time, refer to this piece of folklore: “Auburn University – Seal Superstition,” Eli Alford, USC Digital Folklore Archives, May 1, 2021. http://folklore.usc.edu/auburn-university-seal-superstition/



Informant: So Russefeiring is a celebration of graduates from high school… I guess high school, sort of… The age is kind of in between high school and college I think, ‘cause most of them are 18 or 19. Um, but, you know, they’re ending a three-year academic education. And so they celebrate in the week before Independence Day, where they, um…  They wear these special suits or coats through that whole time that they decorate and draw on and have their friends sign them and all kinds of crafty stuff. And then they have graduation hats that have this long string coming down. And during this week they have all these obstacle things that they have to do, and everything that they do gives them a little, kind of… Treat, or an award that they tie onto their hats. So let’s say you kiss the president of a school, then you get a knot in the string on your hat… And then if you drink a whole bottle of champagne in one, big gulp, um… Then you get a champagne uh–what’s it called…? The cork. And you tie that onto the string or into the hat… Like silly things, you know?

Interviewer: Can you talk a little bit about the different colors of the uniforms? 

Informant: Yeah so if you went to the schools where you, um, studied economy and finance… Then you were called blåruss… Like “blue russ,” and your hat’s blue. If you were into the STEM subjects, then your hat is red. And traditionally, if you… Went to a school that wasn’t strictly academic, like a trade school, then your hat would be black… I think you can study language, like Norwegian, at both schools, so it just depends on what school you went to.

Interviewer: Can you talk about the bus culture? 

Informant: So their last year, the year that they graduate, the students start early planning for their graduation and for this one week. So a lot of kids will get together and they will purchase a bus and then they will decorate the bus… It’s kind of a van more than a bus though. I would call it a van… And they will decorate it on the outside. They will usually ask a younger student who is not graduating if they will be willing to drive them around for that week.

Interviewer: And can you talk a bit about the drinking culture during that final week?

Informant: During that week the school knows this is happening. I mean, you still have to go to class, but people don’t take it that seriously. Because once Indepence Day has happened, everyone is studying. ‘Cause all the exams are after Independence Day. So before that it’s not really taken seriously. People are probably drunk in class. You don’t really go home that week… You sleep on the bus. You sleep wherever. You go home to shower every once in a while. Maybe. 


Informant: Our bus was both boys and girls… And I would imagine there were around ten of us, I think… You know, cause it costs money. We had to buy the bus and it costs money to fix it up a little bit… We didn’t have group names or get pins. I think a lot of people do now, but we didn’t.

Interviewer: Did you ever hear about your parents’ Russefeiring?

Informant: No, ‘cause none of them went to school like I did, you know? My mom didn’t go to that kind of school. And my dad, back then, he went to a sort of trade school, and he was much older when he did that. So they didn’t celebrate that way. Cause none of my parents were academic.


Russefeiring is a celebration, commemorating the end of the students’ studies. It is also a rite of passage into adulthood. During this one week, debauchery and mischief are encouraged. The students become trickster figures, of a sort, as they act impulsively, break rules, and emphasize humor and fun above all. The students are in a liminal place, on the threshold between adolescence and adulthood, as they are not quite students any longer, but also have not yet graduated. They are unstable figures, as demonstrated by the mischief they enact. Russefeiring also seems to be a sort of catharsis before final exams. One might even consider it a catharsis preceding adulthood. Once they have graduated, they must find jobs or dive more seriously into their studies at professional schools (ex. medical school). Russefeiring is one last teenage-hurrah; it is a week of instability before the students have to become stable adults.


Further reading:

Sande, Allan. “The Norwegian ‘russefeiring’. The Use of Alcohol as a Ritual in the ‘rite of Passage’ to Adulthood.” Nordisk Alkohol- & Narkotikatidskrift : NAT, vol. 17, no. 5-6, SAGE Publications, 2000, pp. 340–54, doi:10.1177/1455072500017005-603.