In 1860, Illinois State Normal University’s first class graduated. Seven men and four women were handed their diplomas in a simple ceremony in the recently completed University Building, what we now know as Old Main. Attendees at the ceremony were given a program listing the order of events and announcing the academic calendar for the next semester.

A century and a half later, a surviving copy of that program is safely housed at the University Archives in our Commencement Collection where researchers can find hundreds of commencement programs, graduation invitations, event calendars, graduation regalia, and other documents and memorabilia that highlight ISU’s commencement history.

The Commencement Collection is a great resource for both researchers of ISU history and genealogists. Commencement programs traditionally contain lists of graduates names, their degree type, and if they matriculated with honors and/or awards. Our early commencement programs also include the titles for each graduate’s “senior theme,” a final paper the student was required to write for their program—the equivalent today’s master’s thesis. A genealogist researching an ancestor who attended the university can not only see the commencement program for their graduation ceremony but can learn about their educational pursuits at ISNU.

Researchers can also learn who was that year’s commencement speaker, who were the prominent faculty, and even track trends in education based on degree types and thesis themes. Ceremonies that occurred during major historical events typically included special programming that was listed in the commencement programs. Programming could include special prayers, memorials, and tribute ceremonies.

The collection also holds speeches given by commencement speakers, menus for alumni dinners, graduation regalia, and diploma covers from past years. The Commencement Collection is an important resource that can be used for variety of research projects.

If you are interested in seeing what is contained in the Commencement Collection, see the collection’s finding aid and then email us at to schedule an appointment.