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American University's Commencement Traditions

American University awarded its first degrees (two doctorates and one master’s) in 1916 at a commencement ceremony in the university’s amphitheater. Today, students from AU’s eight major divisions—arts and sciences, business, communication, education, international service, law, professional studies, and public affairs—participate in commencement ceremonies in December and May each year.

Undergraduate Academic Honors

There are two types of graduation honors—Latin and university. These designations appear on the diploma and the transcript, both of which are official documents. (The commencement program is not an official document.) Honors designations are subject to final certification by the university.

Latin honors recognize general excellence based on the student’s cumulative grade point average. Designations are summa cum laude, magna cum laude, and cum laude. University honors are based on a combination of Honors program course work and cumulative grade point average.

Undergraduate students with the honors designation have completed at least one-half of the credit hours required for the degree in residence at AU and achieved the requisite grade point average.

Order of Academic Procession

  • color guard (student and alumni flag bearers carry flags of the United States, District of Columbia, American University, and AU Alumni Association)
  • university marshal (Faculty Senate chair)
  • candidates for degrees
  • pipe band
  • faculty
  • platform party (honorary degree recipient or speaker, student speakers, trustees, president’s cabinet, and academic leadership)
  • university president

The banners displayed on stage and in the Bender Arena hallway represent AU’s schools and colleges.

The University Mace

A symbol of authority dating back to ancient Rome, the mace originated as a weapon and evolved into a symbol of power. In the university setting, the mace heads the academic procession. The honor of bearing the mace is bestowed on a distinguished senior faculty member—at AU, the chair of the Faculty Senate.

Academic Regalia

The traditional gowns and hoods used in academic ceremonies reflect their medieval origin. The various colors and styles signify the type of degree and institutional affiliation. AU introduced its distinctive red, white, and blue regalia in 1988.

Undergraduates wear the mortarboard cap with a white tassel, which, in keeping with tradition, is flipped from right to left at the close of the commencement ceremony. Students who expect to graduate with Latin or university honors wear gold cords.

Graduate students wear the mortarboard plus a blue hood lined in red and white with velvet trim to signify their degree or academic field. Master of arts students wear a white-edged hood—with the exception of education graduates, who are identified by light blue, and international service graduates by peacock blue. Master of science degrees are signified by gold velvet trim, master of business administration by tan, master of fine arts by brown, and master of public administration by peacock blue. Juris doctor and master of laws students wear hoods trimmed with purple and a tam (cap). Doctoral students wear a tam with a silver tassel and carry their hood while processing; they are “hooded” by their faculty advisor during the commencement ceremony.

Color is also used on the doctoral gown and hood to identify academic field, such as copper for economics, crimson for journalism, pink for music, and dark blue for philosophy.

Faculty members wear regalia indicative of their degrees, the discipline of their highest degree, and their alma mater.