English Matters, Fall 2004

English Major’s Last Undergraduate Event


My senior honors thesis was turned in, my last final was over and my fingers were crossed for a satisfactory graduating GPA.

On June 10, I was one of 157 English undergraduates and 10 masters and PhDs who commenced in front of over 900 friends and family at the English department’s ceremony in Meany Hall. This was the first year the department hosted a traditional ceremony. In previous years, the English department hosted a continental brunch, but burgeoning numbers of graduates and their families made space increasingly tight and a formal program impossible.

“I was turning people away at the door” said Linda Ahern, program coordinator for English undergraduate programs. “Last year we tried it in By George, but it was difficult.” Though Ahern estimates over 90% of students who commenced in the English department ceremony also participated in the University’s commencement on June 12, both students and the department see the ceremonies serving different purposes.

The new ceremony format was in response to a desire to be more student oriented, said Ahern. “Dick Dunn, English department chair, is very student oriented; he really wanted students to come first in terms of recognition. Each student has accomplished a milestone. They’ve set a goal and made it—they should be recognized,” said Ahern.

Before the ceremony, I sat in Meany Studio Theatre in my cap and gown, waiting with my fellow graduates— some I knew, most complete strangers—for the ceremony to begin. Around me excited students chatted about their future plans including travel, teaching English abroad on a Fulbright scholarship, law school at UCLA and starting a graduate program in English at Yale.

Ahern and Melissa Wensel, English undergraduate Director of Advising, were pacing in front of us where the theater’s stage would be, looking worried. Wensel instructed us to get ready, and chaos ensued as we attempted to form the lines in which we would enter the auditorium. The student ahead of me in line turned to his neighbor and elated, “Graduation man, yeah!”

The commencing graduates entered the mostly full Meany Auditorium to the sound of cheering families. I found my seat—the first row—and located my family— cheering and smiling down at me from the balcony.

As far as I could tell, the ceremony went off without a hitch. After Dick Dunn’s introductory remarks about why English matters—I’m fully convinced—the PhDs, Masters and then undergrads walked across the stage to shake Dunn’s hand and be handed a purple UW folder by Kate Cummings and Caroline Simpson as Davis Oldham announced each student’s honors over the loud speaker.

Some students hugged other professors on the stage; some waved to their cheering families in the audience; most just walked across the stage, shoulders back, chin up. Every one of them was smiling. After the ceremony, newly commenced graduates found their families—and cookies— in the foyer.

As I walked across Meany stage, I realized that it would not be my thesis topic or my final GPA that I will remember about being an English major—but how the experiences I had at the UW prepared me to make my life whatever I want it to be. This may sound silly—but I felt changed after participating in the commencement ceremony. I will start my new job with W.W. Norton and Company in just a few short weeks, in which I will be challenged to build upon the English foundation I have laid here at the University of Washington.

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