Washington University Commencement: Trivia and Traditions

Commencement scene, ca. 1910.

Commencement fever is in the air! Washington University has come a long way since its first Commencement ceremony, which took place in 1862 and featured five graduates. Fast-forward a century-and-a-half or so: in 2017-2018, the university awarded a total of 4,664 degrees, including 2,836 graduate and professional degrees and 1,828 undergraduate degrees.

Commencement speakers never fail to generate excitement on campus. Many notable people have delivered the Commencement address over the years, including Sister Francetta Barberis (1965), Bob Hope (1984), Marian Wright Edelman (1992), Madeline Albright (2003), Elie Wiesel (2011), Cory Booker (2013), and John Lewis (2016). Check out this full list of Commencement speakers from 1905 to the present day.

Another Commencement tradition is the presentation of honorary degrees to outstanding individuals in recognition of their contributions to society. Henry Hampton, Gloria Steinem, Ella Fitzgerald, Carlos Fuentes, and Rita Dove are a few of the past honorees.

Chancellor Wrighton congratulates student during 2004 Commencement ceremony.

How about that Commencement regalia? The gown has evolved over time. To commemorate Washington University’s sesquicentennial in 2003, fashion designer Leslie Lambeth, an alumna of the School of Art, gave the gown an update, changing the color from traditional black to the university’s signature green and adding black velvet trim and the university shield on each shoulder.

The redesigned robe was launched at the May 2003 Commencement ceremony, when it was worn by Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton, Grand Marshal Edward N. Wilson, and the Board of Trustees. In 2004, all faculty members and graduates wore the new gown, which is still in use today.

For additional information, check out Washington University’s Commencement Collection.

Photos courtesy of University Archives.



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