The Rites of Passage
May is an emotional blend of celebration, closure, nostalgia and
perhaps, even a bit of wistfulness on college campuses as we prepare
for the end of another academic year. At Bethany, those of us who
live and work here are reminded of the history of this dynamic College
by the beauty we experience daily, and especially in spring.
Baccalaureate and Commencement mark not only the close of the year,
of course, but also, a significant rite of passage in the lives of
our graduates and their families. As I enter my 19th year as a college
president, each spring becomes more meaningful as I see aspiring young
people complete their studies and move on to graduate school or careers.
Although the term “rite of passage” is said to have
been first used by a Belgian anthropologist in the 1940s, rituals
and customs marking the transition from one phase of life to another
have been practiced by virtually all societies since ancient times,
enduring even during times of disaster and persecution. In pre-Civil
War America, African-American slaves forbidden by law to marry legally
nevertheless practiced their own “jumping the broom” ceremonies,
signaling a union recognized within the slave community if not by
Many such rites surround youth and the coming of age. While we may
not think of a child’s first haircut as a formal ceremony, social
scientists have noted that it literally marks the figurative “cutting
away” of babyhood. Likewise, the familiar “plebe”
razor cuts at our service academies mark the transition between civilian
and military life.
On our college campuses, of course, we have our own academic rites
of passage—formal ceremonies such as Matriculation Day, Fall
Convocation, Founder’s Day, Commencement and Baccalaureate,
Honors Day in historic Commencement Hall and others. Fortunately,
we do not have a ritual similar to that at a certain Spanish university,
in which a student was questioned by faculty upon completion of his
studies. If he passed, he invited professors and classmates to a party.
If, on the other hand, he was unsuccessful, he was publicly paraded
in a procession while wearing donkey ears.
Many, if not most rituals, must be affirmed by a community of those
who will support the feted individual in his or her own new phase
of life. In addition, these transitions contain an undercurrent of
poignancy because, perhaps unconsciously, participants recognize that
inevitable loss is the flipside of growth and achievement. As best-selling
author Gail Sheehy writes in her acclaimed Passages, life transitions
resemble the growth of a lobster. Before the crustacean can grow,
it must first shed successive external layers. So while we realize
each May that we are not losing our graduates entirely, their status
as alumni will take a different form than their life here with us
as students. That is, of course, as it should be.
College, it has often been noted, is in itself a transition between
the relatively carefree life of an adolescent and that of a full-blown
adult, with corresponding responsibilities. It is a moving and meaningful
experience to be a part of the symbolism surrounding that moment.
At Bethany, one of most significant rites involves a “book-ending”
of a student’s college experience; on matriculation, the new
Bethanian processes through Oglebay Gates, and does so again at Commencement,
marking an outward passage into the world of adulthood.
Baccalaureate and Commencement ceremonies and customs surrounding
them -- senior projects and senior comprehensive exams, diplomas inscribed
in Latin, just as they were to the first graduates more than 150 years
ago, the bagpipe processional and noteworthy speakers Sharon Watkins
and Bill Strickland – are among the threads that weave the rich
tapestry that is Bethany College, binding alumni throughout the generations.
They are among the traditions of Bethany that endure even as we progress
to make her an even more vibrant classical liberal arts college in
In the festivity of the moment, it is important to realize that our
real purpose is easily overlooked in our day-to-day activities. Our
enduring mission, that of preparing a young man or woman to lead a
meaningful and productive life, is a challenge that all of us in the
College community take very seriously.
The story is told of three stonecutters erecting a Gothic cathedral.
Asked what he was doing, the first said, “I am chiseling a column.”
The second replied, “I am carving the most exquisite granite
in all of England.” The third wisely responded, “I am
building the world’s greatest cathedral.”
All of us whose lives intersect closely with those of who teach
and those who learn are in effect, “building a cathedral”
in the shape of the future lives of our students and graduates. It
is both an honor and a privilege to be called to this task, and to
celebrate with them and all of you at this memorable time.
Scott D. Miller, Ph.D.
President of the College
To see Dr. Miller's biography:
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