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Quirky college commencements: Who has them, and what they mean

A pocket watch was thrown from the spire of the Williams College chapel; if it breaks, it means good luck for the graduating class.Williams College/Williams College Communications

Caps and gowns. The cornucopia of Latin phrases. Words of wisdom (Failure is good!) from a celebrated speaker. College commencements brim with time-honored traditions.

But at many local schools, graduates are also ushered into the real world with quirky, quaint, and symbolic rituals.

Boston University graduates celebrate by stepping or dancing on the BU seal on Marsh Plaza, an action regarded as bad luck for undergrads. Northeastern seniors, clad in graduation garb, traditionally ride the T to their TD Garden commencement.

At University of Massachusetts Amherst, international students lead the procession into McGuirk Alumni Stadium carrying the flags of their native countries. And Berkshire Community College wins the prize for coolest venue: Tanglewood, in Lenox, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.


As graduation season begins, here is a look at some other unusual commencement rites:

Williams College: When time flies

Williams foretells the future of each graduating class with an unusual tradition: dropping a pocket watch from the 80-foot spire of the campus chapel. If the fall breaks the watch, tradition says, the class will have good luck.

The practice began as a spur-of-the-moment experiment in 1916, according to the college, and will be celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

Wellesley College: Hoop dreams

Students participated in the hoop race at Wellesley College.Justin Allardyce Knight

Hoop rolling, a popular children’s game in the 18th and 19th centuries, has all but faded away — save for an annual graduation tradition at Wellesley.

Since 1895, seniors, clad in their graduation gowns, have raced alongside self-decorated wooden hoops (some of which have been passed down for years), pushing them with sticks. According to tradition, younger students will hold places on Tupelo Lane for the graduating seniors so they can have good positions for the start of the race.

The winner receives the “honor” of being thrown into Lake Waban by classmates. It was once said that whoever finishes first will be the first member of the class to marry. That was later changed to the first member of the class to earn a doctorate or become a CEO, and now it is simply the first member to find happiness or success however she defines it.


Amherst College: Raising canes

In the 1800s, walking canes were presented to Amherst upperclassmen to signify their standing. The class of 2003 revived and adapted the ritual, and the liberal arts school began presenting canes to graduates and honorary degree recipients. According to tradition, the canes symbolize how a college education can support students’ lives long after they leave school.

Jose Abad, class of ’03, who helped to revive the tradition, said he appreciates the symbolism.

“Amherst gave me so much, that I was able to leave a mark, it just stays with me,” said Abad, a family practice doctor. “I still have my cane in my office.”

Smith College: Where’s my diploma?

For more than a century, the women’s liberal arts school has put its own personal stamp on commencement. Students are called to the stage by house (residence area) rather than alphabetically or by major. Because of this, it’s difficult to ensure that everyone gets the right diploma.

Smith circumvents the problem by presenting every graduate with a random diploma. When the ceremonies end, the graduates meet on the lawn and form concentric circles. They then pass the diplomas around, and when a student receives her own diploma, she steps out.

Nanci Young, Smith’s campus archivist, said the event, which dates back to at least 1911, takes 15 to 20 minutes and is mandatory for all graduates. It is their final, symbolic act before they venture forth, Young said.


“They’ve finished classes and all of their exams, they’ve made it through the commencement speeches, and now all that’s left is the circle,” she said.

Tufts University: Ready, aim, graduate

A Tufts University student guarded the campus cannon in April 2015.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File/Globe Staff

As one of Tufts’ most iconic landmarks, a replica of a cannon aboard the USS Constitution, has been a fixture — and a source of inspiration — on the Medford campus for generations. Students paint it with a variety of messages, advertising campus events, expressing political views, and wishing each other luck on exams.

The artillery piece even has its own Instagram account .

For graduation, seniors have a history of adding a fresh layer of painted messages (offering congratulations, thank yous, or advice for the future) to the thousands already coating the artillery.

“There are only two rules: you have to paint the cannon at night, and you have to guard the cannon until the morning; otherwise other students can paint over your work,” said Dan Santamaria, director of Tufts’ archives.

Jon Mael can be reached at