AUSTIN, Texas—They are coming from three countries, 13 states and more than 30 cities. Some are bringing spouses. Others are bringing children and even grandchildren. One man, who received his MBA in 1948, is bringing his supervising professor.
All are making the trip to the Forty Acres for a second chance. They all missed their graduate school commencement for reasons of life, death, military service, jobs, weddings and financial concerns.
Their reasons for missing commencement are varied, but their reasons for coming back are all essentially the same — to participate in an achievement ritual that has grown more important with time — and to share it with those most important to them.
“I was finishing under the gun,” said UT Austin President Larry R. Faulkner, who missed the opportunity to attend his commencement. “My final oral exam was on July 31, 1969. I was doing experiments up until two weeks before.
“I remember that last month working straight through the night several times, and actually calculated that I worked 93 hours a week that summer. It was crazy trying to get finished.”
The crunch of finishing a thesis or dissertation, the financial pressure of having spent one’s entire adult life in school, and the welcome æ but firm æ deadline of a new job all conspire to prevent graduate students from attending the ceremonial “hooding” that caps their achievement.
“I think we had the required beer party at Schultz’s,” Faulkner remembered. But the next day, he packed up his car and left Austin for a teaching position at Harvard. With the passage of time, he has come to appreciate the rituals inherent in the academy.
“We wear this medieval garb to denote a timelessness,” he said, alluding to the strange “code” inherent in the messages about one’s degree and school conveyed by the robes and hoods.
Faulkner is one of about 100 former UT graduate students who will be participating in a special ceremony on May 21, the Homecoming Hooding. Most stories of those who are attending read similar to his.
One received military orders. Others received teaching positions. Still others finished at awkward times in the year, underscoring the fundamental difference between graduate work and the undergraduate experience. “Graduate students finish all through the year,” Ben Streetman, dean of the College of Engineering observed. “Creating knowledge doesn’t always happen in conjunction with the academic calendar.”
While the reason that most people missed their initial commencement involved work, the reason they are coming back nearly always is about family.
“A graduate degree is really a family achievement,” Faulkner said. “If you look at the front of most dissertations, I suspect you’ll find that students realize they couldn’t have finished without the support of their families. This is a chance to share this celebration with them and, probably, with new family members, too!”
Toni Lynn Devore, a 1977 Masters’ degree recipient, agrees. “This will be my first college commencement! My trip back to Austin is my husband’s graduation gift to me. We’re bringing our kids. Thanks for the opportunity to share this!”
She tells a familiar story, first coming to Austin for a National Science Foundation summer workshop and falling in love with the city and UT.
After meeting with faculty, she decided to take the plunge. “I started studying for the GRE and making application to graduate school. In the spring of 1976, I was offered an assistantship, so I packed my stuff into my roommate’s Pinto and headed for Austin.” She completed her degree, then was offered a teaching position in West Virginia. Loans loomed large and steady income was long overdue.
“I couldn’t afford to miss school to fly back to Austin,” she said. “Teaching salaries were low, my school loan amount was high.”
In 1986, she brought her husband and child back to the Forty Acres for a visit. The allure of Austin worked its magic on her new family as well. Devore will complete her Ed.D. at West Virginia on May 17, then she and her family will travel to Austin to celebrate the masters’ degree completed more than 20 years ago.
UT faculty member, Elaine Fowler, shares a sadder story.
“The reason I didn’t attend the Ph.D. commencement exercises is because my father, C.F. Danielson, who had traveled to Austin from Kansas to see me graduate, died. The ceremony was scheduled to take place on May 30, 1969, and he died here in Austin at the old Seton Hospital (the evening before) on May 29th.”
Like Faulkner’s observation, she, too, remembers the role that family support played in her achievements. “I am an only child, so I got a lot of attention from him and my mother, but he, more than anything or anyone, was especially interested in my education. He was a source of inspiration and encouragement to me — especially about pursuing and attaining higher educational goals.”
When the hood is draped this year, she will remember the last time she wore regalia.
“He did get to see me in the Ph.D. regalia because we took pictures when I pranced around trying on the robe and mortar board. I found out later that he sensed he was going to die here in Austin. His friends told me he said that before he left Kansas, but he didn’t want to miss seeing me get this degree for anything.”
Streetman also will honor the memory of one who helped him achieve his academic goals. The hood he will be using belonged to his adviser, William Hartwig.
“He passed away just before I came back to UT in 1982. His widow, Mollie, gave me his hood, and I’ve enjoyed wearing it at graduation ceremonies. Now, I can have it officially placed over my head.”
Streetman actually left campus two years before completing his degree, conducting much of his research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. “I had advisers in both places, then came back to Austin for my final exams in December.”
Like Faulkner, he headed north immediately after finishing his exams to take a teaching position at the University of Illinois, a locale quite different from Austin.
“When we arrived in Urbana, it was 15 below zero!” Streetman said. “By the time commencement rolled around six months later, there was just no way to get back.”
Another treat for Streetman on May 21 is that his brother, Bob, also will participate in the hooding ceremony. Bob Streetman received his Ph.D. in chemistry from UT in the early 50s, but couldn’t attend his graduation ceremony, either.
Faulkner underscores his belief in the importance of both family and ritual.
“It’s important that we stand a little apart from the rest of society here in the academy. We work on the transformation of human beings. Ritual helps remind us of the important and timeless business that we are in. It ties us to our past, but also bonds us with the present.”
He then tied this timeless notion to a more personal one. “Look at the front page of my thesis, or almost anyone’s, and you’ll see. We all thank our families for the sacrifices they made in helping us achieve our goals. Rituals let us take a moment to say thank you — and celebrate together.”