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Medieval times

The history behind graduation's gowns, medals and banners.
May 6, 2016

The history and the meaning behind the regalia of ASU's commencement

Arizona State University may be ranked No. 1 in the nation for innovation, but when it comes to graduation, it goes medieval.

Consider this: The leaders of an institution of knowledge march in behind someone carrying a fearsome weapon of war. Erudite faculty are led by a banner designed as a visual aid for illiterate people in battle. And everyone wears robes originally intended to keep them warm in chilly buildings in a damp climate.

“In this very modern ceremony, we have these ancient traditions,” said Melissa Werner, director of university ceremonies and protocol officer. “A lot of the iconography has to do with the Middle Ages period. ... As the person who puts on commencement, it’s important I know that history.”

Werner is in effect the keeper of ASU’s crown jewels. “I don’t have a tower,” she said. “I have a closet on the third floor.”

As students and loved ones sit in the audience at the May 9 commencement ceremonies wondering what the panoply signifies, here’s a quick guide.

The President’s Chain of Office

This — seen at the top of this story — is the huge medallion university President Michael Crow wears that looks a bit like something worn by Flavor Flav in 1985. It’s a silver rope woven from strands of hand-turned links, holding a medallion 6 inches in diameter that reverses to reveal the ASU seal in gold on one side and silver and turquoise circles on the other. (Below you will find a photo of the back of it, which is rarely seen.)

The back of the President’s Chain of Office medallion.

“We don’t pull it out unless it’s a formal event,” Werner said. The chain of office, like the ceremonial mace (more on that in a bit), is only used at ceremonies in which faculty members are in full academic regalia, such as the Inauguration of the ASU President, University Commencement, Faculty Assemblies, Regent's Professor Induction Ceremonies and Convocation.

Both the chain and mace were created to celebrate ASU’s centennial in 1985. Professor of art David Pimentel hand-crafted them with “austere elegance and traditional Southwestern motifs.”  Not every university has a chain or mace, according to Werner. “It’s too bad, because they are special pieces,” she said.

Fun fact: The medallion isn’t as heavy as it looks.

The Ceremonial Mace

A mace was used in medieval times to crush heads into raspberry jam. (The movie “Braveheart” has vivid depictions of maces being used in action.)

“It’s literally a weapon of war,” Werner said. “Ours is very pretty. ... It represents the authority of the institution.”

ASU's Ceremonial Mace.

ASU’s Ceremonial Mace is made from Arizona materials. It’s one solid piece of mesquite, approximately 3.5 feet long, weighing 8 pounds. The head has four sterling silver blades and is banded with copper, Morenci turquoise, and a silver ring on which the words “Arizona State University” are embossed. The turquoise inlay was cut and polished by Navajo jeweler Richard Charlie of Mesa. The ASU seal is embossed in silver on the heel of the mace.

When Werner first got her job, she went to retrieve the mace from the library. It was wrapped in bubble wrap in a lamp box. Now it’s kept in a custom-made velvet bag in a case in a locked cabinet in a locked closet.

It’s carried in formal university ceremonies by a grand marshal. When the mace is “placed” (set down), the academic ceremony can begin. In United Kingdom House of Commons sessions, their ceremonial mace is carried in and placed on or under a table. Without the mace placed, the house is not legally convened and members cannot debate.

The earliest ceremonial maces were carried by sergeants at arms around the time of Richard I. Given that that was the late 12th century, when maces were still being used to bash in skulls, the maces were likely more than ceremonial. About the beginning of the 15th century, they evolved to a purely ceremonial instrument used by academicians in rituals. The oldest known ceremonial mace is from St. Andrew University in Scotland, used in 1438.

Fun fact: The mace also isn’t as heavy as it looks, although Werner tells grand marshals they can cradle it instead of carrying it upright if it gets to be too much.


Gonfalons are heraldic banners. The faculty march in behind their gonfalon, which is different for each college. “This is the visual representation of the college,” Werner said.

ASU's Graduate Commencement in fall 2015.

Gonfalons were used to mark positions on battlefields for troops, none of whom could read. “It really is the identifier for that city-state,” Werner said. “They were used in war.”


One would expect the robes and colors to be as ancient as everything else and originate in places like Perugia and Heidelberg. Shockingly, it’s all mostly American and not very old at all.

Academic dress in Europe has always been all over the place, varying from country to country and institution to institution.

We can thank Gardner Cotrell Leonard, from Albany, New York, for setting it all straight. He designed the gowns for his class at Williams College in 1887. He was fascinated with the subject and wrote a paper on the subject. (It should also be mentioned his family conveniently owned an academic regalia company.)

After the publication of his paper in 1893, Leonard was invited to work with an intercollegiate commission made up of representatives of leading institutions to establish a system of academic apparel. The commission met at Columbia University in 1895 and adopted a code of academic dress, which besides regulating the cut, style and materials of the gowns, prescribed the colors representing the different fields of learning.

For instance, purple is for law and jurisprudence, gold is for psychology and copper represents economics.

“At ASU it’s challenging because we are so cross-disciplinary,” Werner said. Changing the colors is not an option. With 400 majors at the university, “we try to fit them.”

“We look for the broadest area in assigning colors,” she said. For instance, all engineering hoods are orange, even if the wearer has a degree in bioengineering.

Sustainability is still up in the air. Kelly green represents medicine, so that was taken.

“We ended up with what’s called scarab green,” Werner said. “I felt we had an obligation as the first school of sustainability in the country to be thoughtful.”

Werner doesn’t know what colors other sustainability schools are choosing for their hoods. ASU’s choice has been submitted to the American Council on Education, the governing body for such things, but it hasn’t been reviewed. The academic costume code hasn’t been reviewed in decades, according to Werner.

Stripes on the robe sleeves are a simple code. Undergrads get one stripe, grad students get two, doctors get three, and the university president gets four.

The tassel

Originally the tassel was used to repair tears in robes. Turning the tassel is a ritual within the tradition of commencement. When students can’t remember what side of the mortarboard it sits on, Werner tells them, “Left as you leave.”

New graduates turn their tassels at the Spring 2015 Undergraduate Commencement

It’s a ritual resurrected at ASU eight or nine years ago. What’s it mean? “You officially had your degree conferred,” said Werner, co-founder of the North American Association of Commencement Officers.

“Commencement is a huge deal,” she said. “It’s as big as a wedding or the birth of a child. It’s a huge milestone. ... It needs to be an experience they’ll remember that ties them to the institution. ... I want them to be excited. This is their party.”


Spring 2016 Commencement

Graduate Commencement: 10:30 a.m. Monday, May 9, at Wells Fargo Arena in Tempe.

Undergraduate Commencement: 7:30 p.m. Monday, May 9, at Chase Field in Phoenix.

More details, such as times and locations for individual convocations; ticket information; details about photos, video and flowers; and a list of prohibited items for Chase Field:

Profiles of some outstanding graduates:


Mace, medallion and tassel (from spring 2015 Undergraduate Commencement) photos by Charlie Leight/ASU Now; gonfalon photo (from fall 2015 Graduate Commencement) by Andy DeLisle/ASU


Scott Seckel

Reporter, ASU News

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May 6, 2016

As their first year draws to a close, our Year in the Life freshmen share their final thoughts

From the start of freshman year, ASU Now photographers Charlie Leight and Deanna Dent documented the lives of Barrett students Eric Arellano, Hannah Kiesling and Kaitlyn DiLorenzo, as well as ASU women's basketball player Sabrina Haines and international student in engineering Shuo Zhang. For their final segment, we asked them about their first year as Sun Devils and if they had any advice for incoming freshmen.

Here are their reactions, in their own words.

Eric Arellano

Eric Arellano

The most surprising thing is that I’m now thriving in engineering and meanwhile not doing anything related to sustainability, which I came into college majoring in. Before coming to college, I had made a list of my priorities for my four years at ASU; nearly half of my priorities related to sustainability. But within a couple months, I had replaced sustainability with computer science because I was surprised by how much I loved my Principles of Programming class (CSE 110). This was a really exciting, albeit confusing, discovery to make that I really fit best in computer science, a field I never seriously considered before college.

Ignore five-year plans. You’ve probably already felt this pressure as seniors in high school to have your entire life figured out at 18 years old, with constant questions this last year about “Where are you going to college?” and “What’s your major?” It’s totally OK to not know what you want to do, because what you want is 90 percent certain to change by the time you graduate college. Not only are you bound to change, but the world itself is going to look dramatically different than it does. For example, I had no idea when I started college last August that I would have gone to Cuba and would be double majoring in Innovation in Society by the end of that year, because neither of these opportunities even existed. Ignore five-year plans; you’ll have a whole lot cooler of an experience if you’re open to new ideas and opportunities.

College is a lot more than assignments and GPA. I don’t just mean the typical spiel that college should also be about self-discovery, trying new things, meeting new people, etc. But I’m also talking about changing the way I approach academics. It took me a while to realize that my classes aren’t worth doing if it’s just to fill a checkbox. Instead, I should do whatever it takes to make sure I’m actually getting something out of my classes. Realizing that college academics should be more than GPA and meeting requirements is hugely liberating. It meant writing a risky paper that literally got the worst grade in the class, but led to me learning way more in the process than if I had played it safe; or taking a Web Development class (CIS 300) that doesn’t give me any eligible credit for graduation, but taught me how to build a website from scratch. You’ll get so much more out of college once you realize it’s not about filling checkboxes, but doing what you want to do.

Hannah Kiesling

Hannah Kiesling

If you haven't noticed, Arizona State is a very large university. Even if you are on a smaller campus (for me, Downtown), there are still so many people. Obviously, you will find friends on your floor or in your classes, but I think it is really important to branch out. My best piece of advice would be to go out and join a club or a student organization on campus. For me, it was going Greek, but for others it may be an association or student government. Within these groups is where you make the most special friendships. You are enveloped by like-minded individuals and can build great relationships. When I see a sister around campus, it always brightens my day because in a very large university, you feel like you now mean something to someone else, and that you are not just a small piece in a large puzzle.

Kaitlyn DiLorenzo

Kaitlyn DiLorenzo

1. Keep an open mind about your classes. You're probably going to have some required courses that you feel like you're not going to enjoy or are not going to get anything out of it, but try not to walk into any class with that attitude. My first semester I was required to take a class called Intro to Applied Computing, and I was absolutely dreading it. I've always thought I was horrible with computers, so I went into class the first day with an extremely negative attitude. By the end of the semester, I loved that class so much that I decided to change my major to computer science. So try to keep an open mind about all of your classes because you might discover a passion that you never knew you had.

Similarly, make sure you take advantage of your general education courses. They give you an opportunity to take some courses that you're interested in, so don't waste it by taking an easy A. With the insane number of classes that ASU has to offer, you're sure to find some great courses that interest you to fulfill your gen eds.

2. Learn how to be professional during your freshman year! I cringe whenever I think back to some of the emails I sent to faculty last August. Definitely take note whenever faculty email you or communicate with you in other forms. Also, make it a priority to attend workshops on professionalism. It may not seem all that important or exciting, but you'll thank yourself later when it comes time to apply for internships or talk to faculty about the research they're doing in order to get involved. Finally, make sure to bring professional clothing to college. You're going to need it!

3. School is important and should definitely be a priority, but if you hole yourself up in your room every night studying then you're not doing college right. Grades are important but so is your mental health, so make sure you're taking care of it by letting yourself take a break every once in a while. Also, you don't need to quadruple major and be the president of eight clubs in order to be successful! It can be hard to find the right balance of getting involved without overscheduling yourself, but it's an important balance to find. If you do end up taking on more than you can handle, don't be afraid to drop some things in order to give yourself some time to relax. You'll be happier and more productive if you take proper care of your mental health.

Sabrina Haines

Sabrina Haines

Some advice I would give to an incoming freshman would be to work on time management. In college, I have learned that time management is everything. It just makes everything so much easier when you are on top of your responsibilities and you get stuff done when it needs to get done. As a freshman, the whole college thing is totally new so it is important to never procrastinate and to always keep in mind the certain obligations you have as a student. Another thing I would say is to have fun. Don't stress so much about the little things. Join a team or a club, talk to people you normally wouldn't talk to, and be outgoing. College is such a fun experience. Make the most of your time while also successfully learning how to manage it. Incoming freshmen are going to love it here at ASU.

Shuo Zhang

Shuo Zhang

Time is fleeting, and my first year in ASU will be ended in a week. Since I am an international student who comes from mainland China, the first month here has been really hard because I am still learning English and everything here is different, like education system, lifestyle and food. At the beginning of the first semester, I frequently had many difficulties about understanding the concepts presented in the class, so I thought that there was a big chance I could fail. ... I was trying to follow the professor hard during the class; I was trying to study the textbook before the lecture; I was trying to be more positive.

Two month later, a pattern that could let you survive in college just formed, and everything got easier. Now, my cumulative GPA is 4, which is absolutely impressive to me, and I still have enough time for other activities: I went to gym four times a week and I often hang out with my friends on the weekends. Overall, looking backward the last year, the surprising discovery is that I survived and I made it. Also, there two major advices for incoming freshmen; first, taking the advantage of tutoring center, which can offer much help on various areas, including writing, math and chemistry. For the second advice, if your major is in Poly campus, you don’t have to live in Poly campus, which means you can choose a room on Tempe campus, and for most class, you can choose to take them on Tempe campus. In that case, you may just visit Poly campus twice or three times a week. I wish I knew it before I started my first semester.

See the most recent entries in our photo series:

Year One: Life at ASU — Eric gains experiences in Cuba and west Phoenix

Year One: Life at ASU — Hannah keeps it real

Year One: Life at ASU — Kaitlyn's robotic creation

Year One: Life at ASU — Sabrina and the Devils' postseason

Year One: Life at ASU — Shuo hits the court

Charlie Leight

Senior photojournalist , ASU News