FROM LATIN SPEECHES TO SOCIAL MEDIA POSTS: A Guide to Emory’s Evolving Commencement Traditions

Title screen with the feel of old parchment; the Emory seal is at the center.

No matter your role on that auspicious day in May — excited graduate, proud family member, engaged faculty, staff or alumni — Commencement ends too soon.

Cameras do their part, brought out in droves to record the moment, reminding us of all that Emory’s graduates have achieved. Still, during Commencement ceremonies, so much passes in a blur. It has always been thus, even in the earliest years when Emory graduations were marathons of speechifying (sometimes, painfully, in Latin).

Long-held anticipation of the big day gives way too soon to closing remarks. Caps are sent sailing, some bearing messages. The last notes of the recessional linger just a moment in the air. A new phase in the life of these extraordinary Emory alumni has begun.

 More than a few of us want the frames to move more slowly and the chance to take everything in. Here, then, is a guide to Emory Commencement traditions old and new — a hedge against forgetting this special scene on a day of joyful distractions.

Side view of shoulder patch showing Emory's torch and trumpet along with blue and gold braiding.
Top view of the marshall's baton showing gold Emory seal


Title page with parchment look. At the center is a square graduation cap with a tassel.

Academic dress got its start with the founding of European universities beginning in the 12th century and then saw changes introduced in the 16th century by Protestant reformers. In the U.S. in 1901, a convention of representatives from schools across the country voted to standardize academic costume. Eager to embrace the use of academic dress, which did not exist for graduations at Emory in the 19th century, the Class of 1902 was the first to don the garb that is so familiar today.

Graduates processing, their colorful hoods visible from behind.
Parchment-like title page showing (l to r) the bachelor's, master's, and doctor's gowns on mannequins.
Ten different hoods are shown from the back in colors that characterize the various disciplines.
Against a parchment-like background are the square cap (l) and Tudor bonnet.

Previous Dean of Emory College of Arts and Sciences John Stephens Jr. congratulating a student

Previous Dean of Emory College of Arts and Sciences John Stephens Jr. congratulating a student

The bachelor’s gown features an embroidered Emory University seal in gold thread and long, pointed, open sleeves.

The master’s gown has longer sleeves, which are closed at the bottom with openings about midway for the hands. Beginning in 2014, the bachelor’s and master’s gowns have been made of fabric spun from the molten plastic pellets of recycled water bottles. As a symbol of the university’s commitment to sustainability, an average of 23 post-consumer plastic bottles are used to create each gown.

The doctor’s gown has full-length lapels of velvet and bell-shaped sleeves with three horizontal velvet bars.

The hood varies for the respective degrees, the doctor’s hood being longer and fuller than the master’s. Each field of study has a corresponding color scheme. The hood is lined with silk in the colors of the degree-granting institution. For Emory graduates, the lining is blue with a chevron of gold.

At Oxford University in 1565, the square cap seen today became the norm, but something known as the Tudor bonnet is still worn by doctoral candidates. For tassels, black is the color for bachelor’s and master’s caps; gold thread may be worn by doctors.


Enjoying the cooler temperatures of spring? Until 1880, Commencement week fell in mid-July and senior exercises consumed an entire day.

A group of individuals in colorful doctor's robes.


Against a parchment-like background is an illustration of bagpipes.

Emory’s Commencement begins with an iconic sound that calls everyone to order:

“From the back of the gathered crowd, a single bagpipe wails its first martial notes, followed by a roll of drums and a crashing skirl from the rest of the Atlanta Pipe Band. The chief marshal of the university steps out in stately time, followed by the bagpipers, then university trustees, officers and honorary degree recipients.” (From Emory historian emeritus Gary S. Hauk’s essay “The Feast of Reason and the Flow of Soul.”)

Vintage photo of people playing bagpipes.

In 1967, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution photographed Emory student Henry Frantz (r) playing his instrument. A couple of other pipers saw the article and reached out. Word began to spread in Atlanta’s Scottish community that there was a new band forming. Others joined in, and by 1970, the Atlanta Pipe Band was established.

In 1967, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution photographed Emory student Henry Frantz (r) playing his instrument. A couple of other pipers saw the article and reached out. Word began to spread in Atlanta’s Scottish community that there was a new band forming. Others joined in, and by 1970, the Atlanta Pipe Band was established.

These days the mellow tones of the Atlanta Symphony Brass Quintet alternate with the stir of the Atlanta Pipe Band, led by Emory alumnus Henry D. Frantz Jr. 71C 74L. The pipers carry the colors of both Emory University and the University of St Andrews, Emory’s sister university in Scotland. In recognition of the significant relationship between the two institutions, Pipe Major Frantz composed “The Emory and Old St Andrews March” used in the processional.

The video captures those stirring sounds indicating that another Emory graduation is officially underway.


Many of the band’s members are prize-winning soloists. All, however, take special pride in ensemble performance, producing a technically challenging and musically satisfying experience for the listener.

Members of the Atlanta Pipe Band marching on Emory's Quadrangle.
Members of the Atlanta Pipe Band marching on Emory's Quadrangle.


Against a parchment-like background is an illustration of a mace.

The university mace is carried in the procession by the immediate past president of the Student Government Association in a role known as the bedel. The mace symbolizes a university as a corporate body of scholars possessing its own jurisdiction and legally constituted authority. Traditionally, the mace is borne in procession immediately before the chief officer of a university — in Emory’s case, the president — and is placed before them during formal academic ceremonies.

The wooden table on which Emory's mace sits during Commencement.
On a parchment-like background, a close-up of the top section of the mace is shown, featuring a skeleton.

Emory’s mace is a gift from D.V.S. Senior Honor Society in 1965. It was designed by Eric Clements and executed in silver and gold by the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths. In the teardrop at the apex of the mace, against a background of oxidized silver, is a freestanding representation in gold of a human skeleton. This is Dooley, the “spirit” of Emory, who traditionally “rises” once each spring and for a week rules campus.

Against a parchment-like background, a zoomed-in photo of the top teardrop of the mace is shown.

Immediately below the skeleton, in an open teardrop, is a gold sphere divided (by stippling) into eight segments. Topping the sphere is a simple cross, symbolizing the relationship of Emory University to the Methodist Church.

Against a parchment-like background, a close-up of the base of the mace is shown, featuring the Emory seal.

The seal of the university is sculptured in gold within the circular base.

The bedel carries the mace in the procession



The bedel poses with the mace at the end of Commencement



In addition to Commencement, the mace makes appearances at Convocation to mark the start of a new academic year. In between these events, the mace makes its home at the Rose Library, “quietly awaiting,” as an Emory Magazine article attested, “its next opportunity to shine.”

Alma Mater

Against a parchment-like background is an illustration of a trumpet.

“Hail we now our alma mater, hail the gold and blue!”

Marvin Rast 1918C 29T sang in the Emory Glee Club and was elected to membership in D.V.S. Senior Honor Society. He is also the author of Emory’s alma mater — a project he undertook when, in the spring of Rast’s senior year, the glee club director was lamenting the absence of a song about Emory for the season’s final concert.

In 1945, the original line “Loyal sons and true” was wholly out of place as women were graduating from every school of the university. Two weeks after Commencement that year, once female graduates lodged complaints, the line was emended to “Sons and daughters true.”

During the presidency of James T. Laney (1977-1993) and for a decade afterward, the alma mater was not performed. It was Jason Hardy 95C — who founded Emory’s first a cappella singing group, No Strings Attached — who approached the administration about reviving the tradition. Another needed update was made to the language — replacing the line “In the heart of dear old Dixie” with “In the heart of dear old Emory” — and No Strings Attached began performing it. The alma mater came back into the Commencement lineup in 2005.

No Strings Attached singing the Alma Mater in front of the university mace.

Emory’s alma mater is set to “Annie Lisle,” which is the tune of hundreds of alma maters for high schools, colleges and universities across the country — and even in China.

Crowd of graduates with two men in the foreground.
Side view of several graduates, including two women of color in the foreground.

Society of Corpus Cordis Aureum

Against a parchment-like background is an illustration of a handshake taking place across a heart.

Society of Corpus Cordis Aureum (Latin for “Golden Core of the Heart”), established in 2004, honors Emory alumni who have graduated 50 or more years ago. These “Golden Eagles” are invited to don their gold robes for the Commencement procession, leading the candidates for graduation into the ceremony.

Members of the society number 14,000 worldwide. With the understanding that not everyone can come to Atlanta to receive their medallions, Emory has begun conducting regional medallion ceremonies.

 A Golden Alumni Brunch takes place in the fall, associated with Homecoming, and events throughout the year offer members educational, cultural and social enrichment. 


The word “society” was added recently to more fully identify members as being part of a special and deeply valued group that shares a common memory of Emory. This enhancement acknowledges the fellowship of shared experience and honors the group’s collective wisdom and perspective.

Members of Corpus Cordis Aureum processing onto the Quadrangle.
Tighter shot of Corpus Cordis Aureum with trees overhead.

Emory Alumni Legacy Medallion

Against a parchment-like background is a medallion.

Graduating students who have a parent, grandparent or sibling who is also an Emory graduate may wear specially commissioned medallions hanging from blue and gold ribbons. The medallions are expressions of the university’s gratitude to those families who have chosen to continue the Emory education tradition throughout the generations.

Picture of Emory Legacy Medallion

Legacy activities begin in a student’s first year during a pinning ceremony that includes family members.

Male Asian student wearing the Legacy Medallion.

Honorary Degrees

Against a parchment-like background is a round symbol bearing a fleur-de-lis.

The awarding of honorary degrees has been a tradition at Emory since 1846, when the Rev. William H. Ellison received a doctor of divinity. Ellison was a Methodist minister and a leader in establishing higher education in Virginia, Alabama and Georgia. He typified the sort of selection the university made in the 19th century — namely, to honor individuals for their contributions to the church and education.

More recent honorees include Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, who has dedicated his career to helping the incarcerated; Temple Grandin, animal behaviorist and autism expert; former Georgia congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis; and Natasha Trethewey, two-term U.S. Poet Laureate and former Emory faculty member.

Two Emory faculty members place a hood around Tyler Perry at Commencement.

Filmmaker Tyler Perry was Commencement speaker in 2022 and received an honorary doctor of letters degree from Emory

Filmmaker Tyler Perry was Commencement speaker in 2022 and received an honorary doctor of letters degree from Emory

Emory honorary degree recipients have achieved the highest distinction in a field of scholarship — the arts, humanities, social sciences, sciences, health, business, law and all the professions — or in public service.

The university suggests its values and priorities with honorary degrees. For instance, the 14 Nobel Peace Prize winners with Emory honorary degrees include 10 peace laureates, two in literature and one each in economics and medicine. Although public servants and philanthropic business leaders tend to outnumber all others, writers also abound among the honored — appropriate for a university with a top-ranked undergraduate creative writing program.

View a full list of recipients.

At some institutions, the Kermit the Frogs of this world have earned honorary degrees. At Emory, it’s people only.

Image of framed citation for honorary-degree recipient Lou Glenn.
Former U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates shaking hands with President Fenves.

School-specific and Oxford College Traditions

Against a parchment-like background is a horseshoe, symbolizing good luck.

Emory College

The sole speaker at the Emory College ceremony is the class orator, a graduating student chosen by a committee of seniors to represent the class. The college also awards the Lucius Lamar McMullen Award to a graduating senior “who shows extraordinary promise of becoming a future leader and who has the rare potential for service to their community, nation and world.”

Oxford College

Student marshals occupy the front of the line for the student procession, and they receive their diplomas first. These students have a 4.0 GPA. After the recessional, the historic Seney Hall bell tolls once for each graduating student.

Goizueta Business School

At the BBA graduation, there is a tradition of “class superlatives” whereby the BBA senior representatives determine the categories and then students nominate one another. The school recognizes the top students in each category as well as the winner.  

Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing

BSN students receive pins featuring the initials of the school. Wearing it is a privilege earned by nursing graduates across the country and represents a commitment to the profession and serving the needs of society. If a graduate has an immediate relative who is also an alumnus/a of the school, the family member gives the graduate their nursing pin on stage.

Rollins School of Public Health

Eschewing “Pomp and Circumstance,” the school goes its own way, selecting a student song and a faculty song to play as graduates and faculty exit the venue.

School of Law

Black Law Students Association (BLSA) alumnae started the Sankofa Ceremony. In the spirit of “Sankofa” — an African word meaning “it is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind” — BLSA alumni reach back and assist students with becoming alumni. 

Candler School of Theology

The school’s DMin graduates — ministry professionals who have studied on either the Church Leadership and Community Witness or Biblical Interpretation and Proclamation tracks — are hooded by the program director and a faculty member.

School of Medicine

During the hooding part of the MD ceremony, graduates sign their names in the MD program alumni book, using the MD credential in their signature for the first time. This has been a tradition at the school since 1992, and many current faculty members’ names appear in the book.

Laney Graduate School

Doctoral graduates are hooded by their advisers. The hooding ceremony originated in European universities in the 11th or 12th century. Hooded robes, often required for warmth in unheated medieval libraries, were first used as a practical uniform for scholars. Universities then added colors to the robes to differentiate students by their academic majors.

Photograph showing the gonfalons for the law, theology, and business schools.

Moments in Time

Against a parchment-like background is an illustration of a camera.