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Students say farewell to university in style
Latest Updated by 2006-07-17 11:00:38

For all the firsts China has brought to the field of education, it may be one of the world's last to introduce a festival-style graduation ceremony for its students.

But at a time when the single child rules the family and a college diploma is essential to land a well-paid job, completing four years of study is a feat worth celebrating.

So let's celebrate and do it in a big way, more college administrators have decided.

Universities nowadays are designing their graduation ceremonies to make them more colourful and involve more activities, which, of course, cost more money.

Thus, a graduation ceremony is also becoming a kind of campus festival. Organizers also hope they can use it to enrich the campus culture, to build up the school's fame, and to keep up ties with the outgoing alumni.

This year, Peking University, one of the best schools in the country, tried to set an example for the rest of the country.

"We want the graduation ceremony to be the biggest festival on campus each year," said Zhao Weimin, the university's public relations director.

Other activities at Peking University, commonly known as Beida, are a photo display of all the graduates, a chance for them to take their yearbooks around campus to scenic sites and have red chops added to the photos of those sites, and the ritual of passing through a gate built at the entrance to the hall while the ceremony took place. The passing symbolizes the transition from college life into the "real" world.

But Peking University is far from the only school to take its graduation ceremony seriously. In many universities and even some urban senior middle schools, graduates are taking photos, wearing Western graduation gowns, sending bouquets of flowers to one another and gathering at farewell parties and banquets. Some have booked trips months in advance as part of their celebrations.

"Graduation activities are a whole package," said Lu Ye, a journalism professor at Fudan University in Shanghai. It includes graduation trips, performances, a grand ceremony and numerous farewell dinners.

Zhao said Peking University's graduation ceremony on July 5 was "grand, dignified and touching."

More than 3,000 students wearing newly made silk graduation caps and gowns attended the ceremony, which featured a two-hour extravaganza by students and teachers.

"To make sure every graduate had the right gown that day, we had to order from the manufacturers earlier this year," Zhao said.

Parents from all over China, invited to the ceremony for the first time, crowded the hall to share the most glorious moment with their children. "It is an honour for the family to watch the moment of graduation," Zhao said.

"We didn't expect so many parents to come to the show, so we had to put some parents in another room of the hall, where a big screen broadcast the ceremony live through our school TV station."

All the top figures of the university were part of the show including principals, faculty leaders and the most renowned professors. "It is not likely for each student to meet all the principal and famous professors. But on graduation day, they get to meet all of these faces," said Zhao.

Graduation from college was a non-event two decades ago. "We didn't have the graduation ceremony at all," said Huang Xiuhua, who graduated from the chemistry and molecular engineering department of Tsinghua University in Beijing in 1980. "We just got the diplomas by lining up in front of the teachers' office and then went home."

Even after gowns and individual photos were introduced in the 1990s, commencement was usually simple. "I don't think mine can be called a graduation ceremony," said Lin Yangzheng, who graduated eight years ago from Tsinghua. "I didn't even wear a graduation gown because the whole school only had about 20 gowns, which were for taking graduation pictures."

Lu of Fudan added: "Only a few student representatives went up to the stage to get the diploma a piece of paper on which 'Congratulations on your graduation' was written."

A major difference from the past, as Lu pointed out, is the parents' participation. But back then, parents either didn't think of coming or were not invited to the campus mostly because of the financial concerns of travelling. Nowadays more parents ask to be invited to the ceremony, Lu said.

At the core of the ceremony trend is a more mature educational concept and a well-developed system that values every step in the process, Zhao said.

"Graduation day is the most important and memorable day for a student," Zhao said. "It is sacred for a young man or woman to say goodbye to school days and step into society for the first time in their lives."

Taking graduation photos is also more popular now, Lu said. "Now you see pictures on campus that were taken two months before graduation day," he added.

Compared with the old-fashioned graduation ceremonies that were highlighted by speeches given by the schoolmasters, this year the Peking University ceremony involved more students.

The show started with a song sung by a chorus of about 100 students, dressed in clothes from the May 4th Movement, a anti-imperialist and anti-feudal student movement initiated at Peking University in 1919. Another highlight was a short film that summarized the four years spent by the honoured graduates.

The film recalled the first day they arrived on campus, Premier Wen Jiabao's speech to students at the canteen in 2003 when SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrom) raged in Beijing and how they went through military training. Graduates laughed and screamed. Some burst into tears.

"It's thrilling," said Zhang Jiaoyi, 22, a graduate and art major who was also one of the emcees of the graduation ceremony. "The school days are pearls, and the film is a thread. It turns all of the memories into a beautiful necklace. To see what happened in the past four years and to know the school recorded them is the best gift I've ever had.

"After the ceremony, I believed the school is not only an educator, but also a family to us."

What makes graduation ceremony special is that the moment cannot be repeated, Zhang said. "A person might wear the wedding gown twice in her life, but there's only one bachelor's graduation ceremony."

And college days for Chinese university students, who are mostly in the single-child generation, are worth celebrating not only as a time of studying but also a stage in growing up, said Xia Xueluan, a sociology professor at Beida.

"They start to learn to do things by themselves and live without their parents' being nearby," Xia said. "For the first time in their lives, they are making a change."

As a necessary and meaningful part of one's college days, the graduation ceremony is not only a celebration but also a good chance for students to express their emotions, Xia said.

"Just like their first day in college, their last day should also be cheerful and for inspiring, and full of exciting expectation to a new chapter in their lives," said Xia, a long-time professor.

In the 1980s, few schools celebrated students' departure. Xia said he had witnessed some sad graduates damaging the school's cultural relics or public facilities.

"Students may feel sad, confused and emotional," Xia Xuluan said. "They need a proper channel to release their emotions."

He sees the ceremony as a chance to help young students ponder their new sense of responsibility and gain a clearer idea of their identity.

Many of the graduates look back and feel the change, as well.

"I became very sensitive, even to little things," said Zhang Xinxin, who graduated this year from East China Normal University in Shanghai. "I was so moved at the graduation ceremony.

"I remembered how childish I was as a freshman, how I worked really hard for good scores at exams, and how much I've grown up after all these years," Zhang said. "To cry on the shoulders of my classmates helped me to overcome the sadness."

Different voices

However, there is some dissatisfaction. Some educators have expressed doubts about the new graduation ceremony and who should attend.

"The graduation ceremony, as a celebration, should be held for the top students," said Guo Zhongshi, an associate professor of journalism at Baptist University in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. "If both A students and D students can celebrate their school days, it makes the ceremony meaningless."

Chen Xin, sociologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, saw the situation a little differently.

"Since the basic structure of our education system is copied from the West, it is only natural that we adopt a Westernized graduation ceremony," Chen said. However, he also urged Chinese institutions to learn the essence of the Western educational system, which emphasizes critical thinking and creativity more than the Chinese system. Those skills, he said, are more essential to success in a real world.

"When we find that landing a job has become more difficult for graduates and some graduates find it hard to cope with harsh reality, what is it we're celebrating at the graduation ceremony?" Chen said.

Despite the debate over the new graduation ceremony and what lies beneath it, it seems the festival is here to stay as students seek a more participatory campus life.

Certainly the commencement can be the climax. So it was at the Peking University event. The hall was sea of flowers, tears and laughter.

The 3,000 students passed through the graduation gate at the hall. Schoolmasters and faculty directors moved the tassel on the mortarboard from right to left, a symbol of their graduation.

"I was very excited at that moment," said Zhu Bin, 22, a graduate who majored in chemistry. "Four years on campus just flashed back in my head.

"It is sad to part with teachers and schoolmates," said Zhu, although he added he will pursue a graduate degree at Peking University in the next five years. "In real life, we graduate every day. It is part of growing up."

Editor: Wing

By: Source:China View website
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