Commencement Traditions

The Mount Holyoke experience is built upon — and truly inseparable from — its traditions. Some trace back more than a century, while others have recently emerged or have evolved. The events encourage connections between classmates and generations of alumnae. The days preceding Commencement are especially alive with tradition. See what’s in store!

Strawberries and Champagne

The last day of spring semester classes

Photo of cups of champagne, each containing a strawberry
Photo of a group of students enjoying the strawberries and champagne reception

The Alumnae Association and the Office of Advancement host this celebratory reception for seniors to toast the completion of classes and welcome the newest members to its worldwide network — more than 37,000 strong.

Welcome Ceremony for New Alumnae

Thursday before Commencement

Photo of an alum placing a scarf on a senior
Photo of students taking a selfie with Sonya Stephens on the red carpet.

This tradition began in 2011 and is hosted by the Alumnae Association and the seniors’ Connection Class — members of the year’s 50-year reunion class. Seniors receive scarves in their class color and are welcomed into the worldwide alumnae community. The celebration continues with a red carpet cocktail party for seniors at the President’s House.

Blessing and Sending

Friday before Commencement

Photo of students taking part in the Blessing and Sending ceremony
Photo of students taking part in the Blessing and Sending ceremony

Hosted by the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life and held in the garden outside Abbey Memorial Chapel, this ceremony, which includes an exchange of roses, is spiritual more than religious. Seniors, accompanied by family and friends, are given a blessing and a send-off as they commence their new lives.

Stoling Ceremony

Friday before Commencement

Photo of stoles made of boldly colored kente cloth
Photo of students wearing stoles at Commencement

In this celebration of mentorship that started in 2005, students of color honor mentors who have helped them succeed. In return, mentors give students a stole — a long scarf — made of boldly colored kente cloth that is embroidered with “MHC” and special symbols.

Laurel Parade

Saturday morning before Commencement

Photo of students marching in the Laurel Parade
Photo of students singing at Mary Lyon's grade following the Laurel Parade

During the Laurel Parade, seniors — linked by two 275-yard laurel chains — process through campus to the grave of College founder Mary Lyon, where they sing “Bread and Roses.” As they have since 1902, seniors are cheered on by the ranks of alumnae, family and friends. Parade participants wear white, in a long-standing show of solidarity with the suffragists of the early 20th century, plus accessories in their class colors. Graduates often cite this as the College’s most moving tradition.

Baccalaureate Ceremony

Saturday night before Commencement

Photo of Abbey Chapel filled with seniors for the Baccalaureate Ceremony
Photo of students enjoying the Baccalaureate Ceremony

For one last special moment, seniors gather together as a class in Abbey Memorial Chapel. They hear remarks from selected faculty members and classmates, in addition to College leadership.

Canoe Sing

Saturday night before Commencement

Photo of students in canoes for the canoe sing
Photo of the canoe sing

This glowing, ethereal nighttime celebration on Lower Lake dates back to 1911. Twelve canoes of seniors navigate the water, illuminated by paper lanterns, in formations choreographed to the lineup of songs. On shore, more seniors and other College community members revel in song and celebration.

Crossing the Field Gate

Following Commencement

Photo of the field gate
Illustration of the field gate drawn on a graduation cap

Following Mount Holyoke tradition, the first time a student is supposed to cross through the Field Gate — at the top of Gateway Road, by Mary Lyon Hall — is after Commencement! To do so beforehand is considered. Very. Bad. Luck.

Commencement

A Sunday morning in May

Photo of the ampitheater filled with seniors, family and friends for Commencement
Photo of a student raising her hands as she crosses the stage during Commencement

While graduation signifies that all of a student’s academic requirements and obligations for a degree have been completed, Commencement is a ceremonial occasion that celebrates the completion of that degree. Most students finish their degrees in May but some graduate the previous December or March, and Mount Holyoke College holds one annual Commencement to honor them all. The ceremony in the Kendall Field House is both formal — with faculty and deans wearing their elaborate academic robes depicting their degrees — and festive, with the graduates often festooned with objects and clothing in their class color and personalized mortar boards, as well as their simple black gowns.

Commencement is presided over by the chair of the Board of Trustees and led by the College president. As part of the ceremony, three honorary degrees are presented to distinguished alumnae and others who have made a significant contribution to a specific field or to society. One of the recipients is the Commencement speaker, and the others give shorter speeches. A student also speaks. After diplomas have been awarded, the morning concludes with the singing of the Alma Mater.