Looking out over a sea of people in Harvard Yard last week, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive and one of Harvard’s most famous dropouts, told this year’s graduating class that it was living in an unstable time, when the defining struggle was “against the forces of authoritarianism, isolationism and nationalism.”
Two days earlier, another end-of-year ceremony had taken place, just a short walk away on a field outside the law school library. It was Harvard’s first commencement for black graduate students, and many of the speakers talked about a different, more personal kind of struggle, the struggle to be black at Harvard.
“We have endured the constant questioning of our legitimacy and our capacity, and yet here we are,” Duwain Pinder, a master’s degree candidate in business and public policy, told the cheering crowd of several hundred people in a keynote speech.
From events once cobbled together on shoestring budgets and hidden in back rooms, alternative commencements like the one held at Harvard have become more mainstream, more openly embraced by universities and more common than ever before.
This spring, tiny Emory and Henry College in Virginia held its first “Inclusion and Diversity Year-End Ceremonies.” The University of Delaware joined a growing list of colleges with “Lavender” graduations for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students. At Columbia, students who were the first in their families to graduate from college attended the inaugural “First-Generation Graduation,” with inspirational speeches, a procession and the awarding of torch pins.
Some of the ceremonies have also taken on a sharper edge, with speakers adding an activist overlay to the more traditional sentiments about proud families and bright futures.
After Columbia’s ceremony, Lizzette Delgadillo said she spoke about the pain of “impostor syndrome — feeling alone when it feels like everybody else on campus just knows what to do and you don’t,” and of how important it was to have the support of other first-generation students.
Ms. Delgadillo, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering, had lobbied for the event for three years, as a member of a group called the First-Generation Low-Income Partnership.
“The current political climate definitely pushed this initiative to come to fruition,” said Ms. Delgadillo, the daughter of Mexican immigrants living in Los Angeles.
Participants say the ceremonies are a way of celebrating their shared experience as a group, and not a rejection of official college graduations, which they also attend. Depending on one’s point of view, the ceremonies may also be reinforcing an image of the 21st-century campus as an incubator for identity politics.
“It’s not easy being a student, being a student anywhere, but especially at a place like Harvard,” Ward Connerly, president of the American Civil Rights Institute and a former University of California regent who campaigned against racial preference in admissions, said sympathetically.
But events like black commencements, he continued, serve only to “amplify” racial differences. “College is the place where we should be teaching and preaching the view that you’re an individual, and choose your associates to be based on other factors rather than skin color,” he said.
“Think about it,” Mr. Connerly added. “These kids went to Harvard, and they less than anyone in our society should worry about feeling welcome and finding comfort zones. They don’t need that.”
The alternative ceremonies at Harvard had printed programs, and incorporated the pageantry, ritual and solemnity of traditional commencements, though without the diplomas, which were reserved for the official university commencement.