Starting a New Tradition: Honoring Winter Graduates

For the last three years, on the third Sunday evening of Block Four, during the generally chilly month of December, Bemis Great Hall on the Colorado College campus has been aglow with soft light and sparkling smiles as a small cohort of seniors gather with their families, friends and cherished faculty to celebrate the end of their undergraduate studies and the beginning of their journey into the future. (For those of you unfamiliar with the idiosyncratic measurement of time known as the “block”—which is probably most of you!—you can read more here.) While the majority of the 2,000 or so undergraduate students at Colorado College conclude their time on campus by processing across the quad on a sunny May day during Commencement Weekend, there are a few students (generally between 10 and 20) each year who, for a variety of reasons, choose to complete their programs in December, mid-way through the academic year. To honor the diversity with which our liberal arts students design and pursue their academic experiences, and to celebrate those students who don’t take a traditional path to degree completion, Colorado College established the Winter Celebration. 

The event consists of a short program followed by a formal dinner. The program includes an address by the president, remarks by faculty (generally the faculty member selected by students to receive the "outstanding faculty" award at the previous year’s Honors Convocation), the opportunity to walk across the platform and shake hands with the president, and concludes with remarks from the college chaplain. In addition to inviting family and friends to join them for the ceremony and dinner, students are encouraged to invite faculty or staff who have played an especially meaningful role during their time at Colorado College. Dinner is accompanied by a student musical ensemble, and this year, there was even some dancing after dessert!

Winter Celebration is a result of the work of a short-term project team that I chaired in 2015, which included representatives from alumni and family relations, student life, the registrar, and the faculty. The team researched various other institutions across the nation that also provide mid-year celebrations in order to generate a group of institutions with which we could reasonably compare ourselves, and on which we could base our discussion of a possible event on our campus. We discussed the reasons why students might be December graduates and how many typically fall into this category, as well as the reasons why students (and families) might/might not elect to return to campus and participate in May commencement (including employment and travel costs). We also discussed how having some kind of recognition in December could contribute to students’ sense of personal achievement, as well as a positive affinity towards the institution.

We then surveyed a group of approximately 180 alumni who had completed studies in December and found that the majority of respondents agreed that a mid-year celebration would be appreciated by December graduates, even though they may also choose to participate in the larger May commencement as well. Qualitative feedback included: 

“What a brilliant idea. Something should definitely be done.”  

“Creating a more ‘official’ ceremony or process is a great idea, and is something I would have appreciated at the time of my graduation.” 

“Glad to hear CC is trying to figure out a way to celebrate December graduates. I, along with a few friends…, all felt very overlooked…” 

“I know my parents and I would have appreciated this.” 

So Winter Celebration was born as a pilot program, and with a few logistical challenges and refinements along the way, it has begun to take root as a new tradition. Based on anecdotal feedback, as well as program surveys we have collected, it is anticipated and enjoyed by those who have taken part.


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