9 Totally Unique College Graduation Traditions

(Cover Photo by Jay Janner)

Graduation is all about tradition: Baking in the hot sun while wearing a long gown; moving the tassel on your mortarboard; finding out that the funny hat with the tassel is called a mortarboard; the requisite playing of Pomp and Circumstance; idle promises to keep in touch over the summer.

That last day of college is awash in longstanding and reaffirming rituals. It feels nice to be a part of tradition, to be a link in the chain that connects us to our history. It's nice to do these things. But then, none of these things is inherently original. What you're wearing (or not wearing) under your gown may be original, but the gown itself isn't.

Fortunately, some colleges have found ways to liven up graduation, to infuse the usual customs with a few creative and often hilarious traditions of their own. And because graduation signals the freedom and unbridled promise of summer time (not to mention the whole rest of your life), what could more fitting than an irreverent display of creativity? (Besides, in a few weeks, you'll be going to job fairs, polishing up your resume, touching base with your professional contacts, realizing that you have to start paying back your students loans, saving for an apartment, and contemplating whether you should just join a traveling circus rather than live for even another minute back at your parents' house.)

I'm not trying to freak you out. I'm just saying, get in a few kicks while everybody's still proud of you. And if you need a few ideas, check out these 10 Totally Unique College Graduation Traditions for inspiration:

1. Foam Sword Friday at the University of Texas

Graduating into the real world is a lot like leaving basic training and charging into battle. The University of Texas in Austin truly captures the spirit of the moment with Foam Sword Friday, an end-of-semester tradition that feels like there perfect marriage of frat party and Renaissance Faire. To mark the completion of another school season, students are invited to gather at the university's East Mall to either receive a school-furnished foam sword or to submit their own for inspection. (So yeah, don't try to be all cool and bring the Katana blade you stole from a sleeping samurai on the campus bus. You won't be allowed to use it).

Anyway, once all foam sabers, cutlasses and scimitars have been formally approved, students will gather on either side of the campus main street, brandish their swords, and charge at one another with the fury of a hundred entry-level job applicants. Students meet in the middle for an extremely brief, Braveheart-style melee before quietly dispersing.

It may not sound like much of a battle but you'll notice from the video included here that they don't actually take any precautions to stop traffic from flowing down the street so the event does carry some peril. When all is said and done, though, battle-weary students break from their confrontation and amble away peacefully.

2. Hooprolling at Wellesley College

Wearing a commencement gown is not inherently funny. Rolling a wooden hoop down a street is strange, but also not inherently funny. Combining the two, however, is a perfect recipe for hilarity. For seniors approaching graduation at Wellesley College (just outside of Boston), this hilarity has been an annual tradition for more than a century. Originally part of an array of May Day festivities, the hooproll is now an important and ridiculous rite of passage for Wellesley women on the cusp of completing their studies.

Technically, the hooproll is a race down Tupelo Street, though in actuality, it is a chaotic flourish of toppling hoops and colliding graduates. Back in the day, the winner of this race was preordained to be the first from her class to land a husband. Of course, times have changed. By the ‘80s, women had more to aspire to than simply getting married. At that point, the legend held that the winner of the hooproll would be the first to become CEO of a company.

In either case, it seems likely that these first-place prizes didn't always square up with actual reality. This, and changing cultural mores, may explain why the winner is now guaranteed the far more abstract prize of personal happiness.

But because happiness is kind of hard to award in trophy form, the winner does get one very tangible prize. Her classmates will dunk the victor into Wellesley's placid Lake Waban for a triumphant end-of-semester plunge.

3. Watch-dropping at Williams College

There's obviously all kinds of symbolism tied up into this one, but when you look at the history of it, the real motivation behind this tradition is that it's fun to throw stuff off of tall buildings. Basically, it goes like this. During each year's commencement, a watch is dropped from the 80-foot spire of Williams College's Thompson Chapel. Should the watch break upon impact with the earth, it is said that the graduating class in question will be blessed with good luck.

I guess you could read into the metaphorical impetus of stopping time, of marking the end of a phase in one's life, and thus, also marking the beginning of yet another. But all of this is kind of an afterthought. The tradition really did begin as an excuse to see what happens when you chuck something from an intimidating height. This, according to a 1916 news article marking the first annual watch dropping a century ago:

"One of the most interesting occurrences of the afternoon took place on the spur of the moment from the top of the chapel tower immediately after the singing of 'The Mountains.' Members of the class had been remarking about the very great height of the tower and wondering what the effect would be upon the body of a person leaping off, when suddenly someone suggested that a piece of mechanism that is usually considered unbreakable be tossed down -- an Ingersoll watch. A collection was taken up by the class at once and one of the 'dollar brand' was bought. . . With great solemnity, the article was tossed off. Upon rushing down to the foot of the tower, the watch was found, imbedded in the earth, somewhat battered and beaten, the case very much scratched, but the works still ticking valiantly away and the time registered 3.43 correct to the minute.”

So technically, the class of 1916 was not among the lucky ones. Indeed, the very next year, the United States entered into World War I. We're not saying the students at this Massachusetts-based liberal arts college are to blame, but there's also no proof that they aren't.

4. Architectural Mortarboarding at Notre Dame

A little spot of advice if you're planning to attend a Notre Dame commencement event. Don't sit behind the School of Architecture students. You won't be able to see a thing.

Architectural Mortarboarding at Notre Dame
It's not unusual for students to decorate their mortarboards with glitter, puffy paint and googly eyes (which, by the way, are never not funny). What is unusual is for students to adorn their boards with miniature scale models of the Taj Mahal, the Gateway Arch, the unmistakable edifice of an International House of Pancakes, or any number of immediately identifiable architectural structures.

But for the Indiana college's School of Architecture graduates, this is an opportunity to demonstrate the skills they've mastered during their undergraduate studies. Indeed, as an architect, in addition to displaying skills of precision, ingenuity, and craftsmanship, you should be able to make really cool miniature versions of stuff.

So if you do show up late for graduation, and you somehow end up sitting behind the Architecture kids, you won't see the stage but you'll have tons to look at. Bridges, skyscrapers, carnival attractions, stadia: you name the structure, and some Notre Dame kid has graduated with it atop his or her head.

And there is a competitive element as each student either teams up with others or works in secret to impress their classmates. Check out “Julie,” class of 2012. She gets it. She made an ingenious little treehouse-hat using a stalk of broccoli.That's both inventive and filled with all kinds of cancer-preventing antioxidants. I'm neither an architect nor a nutritionist, so what do I know? But if I was a tiny little man, I would live in that.

5. ”Rubbing” the Toe at Yale University

If you're planning on taking a guided tour of Yale University, I'm about to do you a huge favor. Believe me when I tell you, don't rub the toe. Don't rub any toes. If a tour guide tells you to rub the toe of a statue for good luck, don't be like, “well, this tour guide goes to Yale. I can trust a Yalie.”

No. You can't.

Theodore Dwight Woolsey statue
Notice the shiny toe...

But a quick bit of history first. Theodore Dwight Woolsey was a graduate from the Yale class of 1820, a subsequent president of the University, and a huge fan of his school's crew team. He was even said to be something of a good luck charm. It was believed that if President Woolsey showed up to a regatta, Yale would win.

This was enough to earn him both a prominently-placed statue on campus and the honor of being the center of a long-standing tradition. You see, incoming students are told that rubbing the toe is the best way to get a little of that old-fashioned Woolsey luck.

But that's not the real tradition. When you actually become a student at this storied New Haven, Connecticut university, and you befriend a few upperclassmen, you'll learn that the real tradition is for graduating seniors to urinate all over said toe. Not sure if this for good luck or because it makes a funny sound if you hit it just right or if it really is all just an elaborate way to mess with an unsuspecting prospective frosh. Whatever the reason, it's really gross so don't rub the toe.

6. Fountain Hopping at Butler University


It obviously wouldn't be a list of long-standing college traditions if there wasn't just a little hardcore nudity.

Butler University is graced by five gorgeous fountains. It is said that one thing you must do before you can graduate from Butler is befoul each of these cherished water features by taking a dip in all five during one single mad dash. It is also advisable that students of the private Indianapolis university do so in stark nakedness. (Don't worry. If you're shy, taking the dunk in clothing won't hurt your chances of graduating.)

The goal is to take a quick swim in all four outdoor fountains as well as the single indoor fountain at the center of the Irwin Library. Naturally, like many long-standing annual traditions, this one is frowned upon by the University itself. It is thus that the activity is pursued mostly by the cover of the Indiana night, which can be pretty chilly in the early spring.

7. Class-Goating at West Point

Class-Goating at West Point
West Point's commencement tradition is at once really mean and sort of generous. If you are the lowest academic performer among the cadets in your graduating class, you are recognized as “the class goat.”

This honorable title actually comes with recognition from your fellow students. During graduation, your ineptitude will be treated with wild applause. And then, presumably because you suck and you really need the help, every single classmate will gift you a silver dollar. At the end of this ceremonial humiliation, you'll be sitting on top of a really heavy pile of cash, typically something in the range of a cool grand.
So while we can't say much about this tradition other than that it seems kind of cruel and demoralizing, if you are in a race to the bottom with a few other fellow grads, it's in your financial interest to tank a few of your finals. Just be prepared for a bit of not-so-gentle mob-style ribbing.

And fear not, you are actually part of a pretty storied tradition. According to one historian, more than a few goats have gone on to distinguished military careers, including George Custer. He was last in his class at West Point and even though I'm only halfway through his biography, things are turning out pretty great for him. Shhh. Don't tell me how it ends. I want to be surprised.

8. Scrub-burning at Liberty University

If it's the night before graduation at Liberty University and you need a nurse, just follow the billowing smoke belching into the night sky. That's where you'll find the soon-to-be graduates of this private Lynchburg, Virginia college's nursing school.

While most students can wear whatever they want in class, nursing students must wear scrubs. It's good practice for the real job, but it also means that, as a poor college student, you don't get to change outfits too much. At the end of a few years of study, your scrubs have seen some serious action, some of it probably pretty gross. That's why simply sending it to the laundromat won't do. It's best just to burn it.

After years of hard work and long, sleepless nights of study, the senior nursing students gathering together at the home of nursing school dean, Dr. Britt, for a bonfire. We assume comestibles are roasted and eaten, possibly campfire songs are recited. But most importantly, the students celebrate freedom from their studies by flinging their scrubs into the flames.

I'm not sure what kind of smoke inhalation risks are implied by a bunch of burning scrubs but fortunately, you'll be surrounded by a bunch of almost-medical professionals if something bad happens.

9. Doming, Driving, Tunneling and. . .Miscellaneous at Duke University

It is said that in order to graduate from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, a student must perform five distinct rites of passage. But let's be clear on one point: these rites are neither official nor endorsed by the university. Matter of fact, we're not going to do the research. I'm just going to go on assumption that all of these activities are expressly forbidden in an official capacity.

But…in an unofficial capacity, students must do the following:

Anyway, i guess the point is that if you manage to accomplish all five of these feats during your undergrad studies without getting caught and booted, you're probably going to graduate.

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These were some of the most unique graduation traditions that we came across. Does your school do anything cool that we should know about?