From Special Collections/University Archives: Commencement at Bucknell

Every spring, all graduating students, their family and friends, as well as faculty and the administration gather in the front of Bertrand Library for commencement exercises —a multi-hour ceremony that is dedicated to each of the students that have met the requirements for receiving a degree from the University. The ceremony carries with it a long academic tradition, both from within and outside of Bucknell University. People from every walk of University life gather and reconfirm the principles that guide education at this institution.

The first commencement was held on August, 20 1851, conferring Bachelor of Arts degrees on seven senior male students who began their studies with the newly established University at Lewisburg (former name of Bucknell University) in the University’s first classroom in the basement of the Baptist Church on Third Street. By the time of the first commencement in 1851, the Academy Building, now named Taylor Hall, was constructed and commencement exercises took place on its third floor. A striking difference from today’s commencement schedule, early commencements were scheduled on the third Wednesday in August and were preceded by two days of examinations for the lower classes and a public exhibition of student work. Commencement activities filled a full day, ending late in the afternoon and completed with a dinner hosted by the President. Later, a twilight concert was held, a traditional commencement activity until the 20th century. Commencement tradition

Eventually, commencement became a much larger affair, but the first commencement’s tradition of including a procession of faculty, staff, and students remains until today. After the completion of Carnegie Library in 1905, commencement was held in the quadrangle behind the Bucknell University Library, between the building and Old Main, which was located where Roberts Hall now stands. On the steps of Carnegie, beneath the stone-carved inscriptions of the names of Vergil, Dante, and Milton, a small platform was constructed for speakers and for students to receive their diplomas. It was here that graduating classes—considerably smaller than those of today—convened to celebrate and recognize their individual achievements in attaining an education.

Since the conception of the University, a flurry of activity has surrounded the commencement—whether it was celebrations for graduating students or activities that brought together distinguished guests and alumni. The first alumni gatherings were scheduled during the commencement period. Beginning in the 1880’s, after the University at Lewisburg was renamed due to a generous donation from William Bucknell, the University began publishing a short newspaper entitled “The Commencement Daily News” to provide information to alumni about happenings around campus during this time of year. Each issue provides a unique window into how alumni, students, and faculty saw commencement and how some elements have changed or remained the same over the years.

Despite the changes in both size of and activities surrounding commencement, many elements of the century and a half old commencement tradition at Bucknell remain the same. Today, students are familiar with the location in front of Bertrand library on the Malesardi Quad. The commencement ceremony remains a multi-day celebration of student achievement, continuing to bring together students and families to celebrate the life that they have come to know at this institution for four years.

 

 

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