Huddled together on a Wednesday night in the upstairs corner of an Uptown Normal restaurant, a small group of graduating anthropology students carried on an historic tradition.
It’s called Rites of Passage, and Illinois State’s anthropology program has been doing it since the mid-1970s. Graduating seniors hang out with their professors as, one by one, they stand in front of the group to answer a tricky anthropology question or perform a special talent.
Senior Jacklyn Weier ended up rapping a verse from Kanye West’s “Monster” during the Rites of Passage at Firehouse Pizza on May 4, 2016. The 16 seniors in this small program became friends, and many went their separate ways after their big commencement at Redbird Arena.
“It’s really a privilege to have this,” said Weier, who planned to return to ISU for her master’s degree.
Rites of Passage is one of the oldest departmental graduation ceremonies at Illinois State, said Department of Sociology and Anthropology Chair and Distinguished Professor James Skibo.
Anthropology majors are unique, Skibo said, rarely joining more popular student groups like fraternities and sororities. They become friends with each other, he said, anchored by the Society of Student Anthropologists (SOSA), which hosts an initiation event for new anthropology majors.
“This graduation ceremony is a culmination for them, celebrating their years here,” Skibo said.
Rites of Passage began in the mid-1970s, with a few students looking for a more personal way of marking their graduation. The event is inspired by the very real anthropological concept of a “rite of passage,” which marks a transition in one’s life, a coming-of-age moment. Like a wedding.
“It’s that moment when your social status and your social responsibility change,” said Associate Professor Nobuko Adachi, one of many faculty members who attended Rites of Passage.
In past years, the event was even more ritualistic—there was face-painting involved—though it’s now more casual. It’s previously been held at the Catholic Newman Center, Ewing Cultural Center, and Lucca Grill in downtown Bloomington.
The questions have been a constant; this year one student was asked, “If you were stranded on a desert island, which anthropologist from anywhere in the world would you take with you?” Another had to explain Donald Trump’s candidacy from the point of view of a cultural anthropologist.
“We put them on the spot, in a humorous way,” said Gina Hunter, an associate professor who helps organize Rites of Passage.
The event ends with awards for the best senior theses. (That’s another anthropology program tradition: Every graduating senior must write a publishable quality thesis paper.)
The Rites of Passage is hardly alone. All across campus, Illinois State’s many departments, schools, and colleges honor graduating students in their own special ways. Here are just a few of them:
Fine arts fun
The College of Fine Arts commencement ceremony has, for many years, reflected the sense of creativity and fun you’d expect from the college. There is typically a musical performance by students, and orchestra members have been known to play “musical accents” when one of their compatriots crosses the stage. Theatre graduates who studied under fight instructor and Head of Physical Acting Paul Dennhardt are “knighted” for their mastery of the sword.
While the other five colleges have student speakers, the College of Fine Arts has always felt that its alumni could provide the best inspiration. Past alumni speakers have included Scandal actor Jeff Perry, celebrated artist Terry Adkins, and Emmy-winning casting director Deborah Barylski. The 2018 speaker will be School of Music alumnus Germán Gutiérrez.
Where’s the tassel?
Construction management students from the Department of Technology always stand out while taking photos before the ceremony, because they’re usually wearing hard hats.
Graduates from the College of Business receive a special pin to commemorate the big day. Associate Dean Daniel Goebel was the mastermind behind the creation and design of the pin, which acts as a symbol of alumni professionalism when worn at receptions or professional events.
The College of Business also hosts a picnic every year for graduates and their families. The courtyard in the center of the State Farm Hall of Business has become a go-to spot for photos.
Illinois State hosts four graduation recognition ceremonies so all students are acknowledged for their contributions to the University. This year, the University hosts its third annual Lavender Graduation (for LGBTQ and allied graduates), its second annual Nuestros Logros (“Our Achievements,” for Latino/a grads), the fifth Umoja ceremony (African-American grads), and the first MAPS ceremony (Middle Eastern, Asian, Pacific Islander, and Southeast Asian students).
One of our newest traditions, the #RedbirdProud hashtag has been a rallying cry for our graduating students and their family and friends. Throughout commencement weekend, Redbirds share family photos, tweet about their accomplishments, and post cap-and-gown selfies.
The Athletics Senior Banquet marks the culmination of a student-athlete’s career at Illinois State. This event is held a few weeks prior to graduation and is open to family and friends.
Graduating seniors receive their senior plaque proudly displaying their full Redbird Medallion. They received the first half of their medallion at the Walk of Champions when they first arrived on campus, but the other half isn’t given to them until the Senior Banquet.
Many graduates decorate the top of their mortarboards with a personal message such as a “Thank you, Mom and Dad!” You can spot some of the best mortarboards—filled with inspirational messages and no shortage of glitter apples—at the College of Education ceremony. Our future educators also receive custom buttons from their college, with slogans such as “Teachers: The True Superheroes.”
Scroll and pin
Mennonite College of Nursing (MCN) grads are presented with their nursing pin—a very significant and symbolic act dating back to 1920. It not only represents personal achievement in having met the standards of nursing education, but it also marks the rite of passage into the profession.
A graduate from MCN’s master’s program also leads students in a reading of the International Nursing Pledge, an oath of the ethics and principles of nursing. Students read from the Pledge Scroll they receive when crossing the stage at Braden Auditorium.
At Illinois State’s student radio station WZND, the departing seniors leave their legacy by signing the same Fell Hall wall that’s been signed for generations. They also create audio tributes to each other—some of them are roasts—and share advice for younger students.
Illinois State’s ROTC cadets participate in their own commissioning ceremony, typically the same day (or day before) their larger commencement ceremony.
During the commissioning ceremony, one graduating senior (nominated by their peers) is recognized with the Spirit of Charles E. Hovey Award, named for the first president and principal of Illinois State Normal University. Hovey also served in the Civil War. The cadet who receives it exemplifies the seven Army values, including loyalty, duty, and personal courage. The Spirit of Hovey, which has been awarded since 2011, comes with an exact replica of Hovey’s sword.
Ryan Denham can be reached at rmdenha@IllinoisState.edu.