The history behind Convocation

Photo courtesy of Advika Mukherjee '18  The class of 2021 cheers at Convocation 2017. Acting President Sonya Stephens gave the opening remarks, welcoming each class in attendance. 

Photo courtesy of Advika Mukherjee '18

The class of 2021 cheers at Convocation 2017. Acting President Sonya Stephens gave the opening remarks, welcoming each class in attendance. 

BY LILY REAVIS ‘21

Though some archive records claim that Convocation has taken place annually since 1837, there are no formal accounts of any such event until 1931. If there was a tradition before then, it was likely very different in style. The official establishment of Convocation in 1931 marked a turning point for Mount Holyoke College. Today, Mount Holyoke College’s Convocation is a loud, vibrant celebration of the school’s community, but it wasn’t always that way; the tradition was originally far more formal and focused on individual student awards. 

Originally, a Mount Holyoke education centered around students’ religious and social lives. Beginning in the ’20s and ’30s, the focus switched to enriching students’ educations in several fields. By extension, the College grew tremendously in terms of student organizations, enrollment and traditions. Mount Holyoke’s first stable was erected in 1925, College sports teams began competing with other nearby schools in 1929 and in the mid-1920s, College President Mary Woolley reversed curfew rules set decades earlier. In the midst of this transitional period, Convocation was established as an annual tradition. 

Modern Convocation takes place in the Gettell Amphitheater, which fills with students clad in red, green, blue, yellow, and purple to kick off the new academic year. It originally took place in Abbey Chapel, and students dressed in white robes. After the first few years of the tradition, the dress code was changed to allow formal clothing without the robes worn on top. The College’s Special Collections and Archives referred to the original Convocation as a “buttoned-up affair.” Faculty members began wearing their own regalia in the 1940s, according to photographs in the College’s Special Collections and Archives. Today, staff members continue to wear their graduation robes while seniors casually wear their own over costumes or outfits in their class color.

Much like today, early Convocations opened with an address from the College president. In the tradition’s early years, however, the opening remarks generally focused on individual students. A Mount Holyoke News article from Feb. 10, 1984 said, “The campus honored three Mount Holyoke seniors [...] at Second Semester Convocation in Abbey Memorial Chapel Feb. 1 with awards for their outstanding contributions of service and leadership to the Mount Holyoke community.” Recent Convocation remarks have centered around students’ identities and backgrounds without naming specific individuals. 

These “special service awards” continued well into the 1990s, but were eventually moved to take place during a special “second semester Convocation.” By 1962, individual student awards only took place during the second event. A 1962 article in the Mount Holyoke News said that the September Convocation that year focused on the “physical changes” to campus, most notably the construction of 1837 Hall. By the 1960s, the formality of Convocation had been transferred to the second semester event, but Convocation remained ceremonial. 

The event remained a formal one until relatively recently — in 1982, a Mount Holyoke News reporter wrote that the annual Convocation ceremony was “marked by elegance.” The article went on to describe the event as “both sobering and elevating.” The nature of Convocation began to change in the mid-1990s, and the shift was originally treated by both staff and students with disdain. 1996 marked the clearest shift, as was recorded in the Sept. 19, 1996 edition of Mount Holyoke News. A student wrote, “We, in addition to the other individuals who responded to the behavior of the senior class during Convocation, are also disappointed and appalled. As members of the class of 1997, we have been present at Convocation for the past three years. We have watched and cheered along with seniors of previous years.

This year, it was our turn. We are embarrassed by the behavior of our fellow classmates, who turned a potentially enjoyable evening into nothing more than a display of immaturity and complete disregard for the spirit of our intellectual and emotional growth. Such comments as ‘Get Drunk!’ and the repetitive screaming of another student’s name during the Glee Club performance, not to mention the verbal disturbance during prayer, is unacceptable behavior for women of our stature.” The article headline read, “Seniors a disappointment.” 

According to Mount Holyoke News archives, administration threatened to discontinue the tradition in the mid-1990s due to excessive alcohol consumption and lewd behavior. In order to combat the issue of students showing up drunk, staff decided to change the time of the event from the evening to mid-morning. This, along with the introduction of a pre-Convocation senior breakfast and picnic lunch immediately after, significantly decreased the number of intoxicated students at the event. 

By 2005, costumes and excited behavior were considered traditional markers of Convocation. An article published in the Mount Holyoke News on Sept. 8, 2005 said that the class of 2006 arrived, “Wearing red boas, firemen hats and even devil horns over their black gowns.” The event was once again well-received by the Mount Holyoke community, thanks to lowered levels of intoxicated students. 

Today, Convocation continues to take place mid-morning. Seniors meet before to line up and socialize, and there is still a picnic lunch following the event. Now, Convocation is looked forward to by faculty, students and staff, while continuing to be loud and fun. What began as a somber, quiet event in Abbey Chapel continues to garner enthusiasm as an outdoor kickoff to the year, marked by intense class pride and love for Mount Holyoke.