New commencement ceremony celebrates cultural diversity

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New program makes commencement ceremony cultural celebration. COURTESY PHOTO / WYDAILY.COM

May 2020, one year after the creation of the Asian and Pacific Islander American Studies major, the College of William and Mary will host its first Asian/Pacific/Middle Eastern graduation ceremony. The ceremony follows in a long line of cultural graduation celebrations, from Donning of the Kente, which is a ceremony for students of African descent, to Ceremonia Raices, which is designed for Latin American students.  

Director of APIA studies Francis Tanglao Aguas said that the APM graduation ties into his personal experiences with cultural celebration. 

“I’ve long wanted our W&M students from the Asian Pacific Islander and Middle Eastern communities to experience cultural graduation as I did years ago at my own alma mater of UCLA where we had all the cultural graduations,” Aguas said in an email.

“I’ve long wanted our W&M students from the Asian Pacific Islander and Middle Eastern communities to experience cultural graduation as I did years ago at my own alma mater of UCLA where we had all the cultural graduations,” Aguas said in an email. “Particularly for the parents, the milestone becomes more significant as it incorporates cultural celebrations that resonate deeper into family narratives. So in many ways, the graduation of our students become new segments of their families’ traditions as their cultures in turn are imbedded into William & Mary’s traditions.” 

Aguas also pointed out that this celebration was inspired by the graduation ceremonies for other students of color. 

“It’s crucial to note that Professor Jody Allen and the Lemon Project always included and welcomed APM students at the Donning of the Kente,” Aguas said“In fact, we can say that it was the Donning that inspired our APM students to organize in order to more personalize a ceremony for themselves.” 

Aguas hopes that the new ceremony will shed light on the history of Asian students at the College. 

“The APM-grad also is an opportunity to commemorate the history of Asians/Asian Americans at W&M in the earlier years including the recently found materials on Pu-Kao Chen, ‘23 who so far is the first student of color at W&M on record,” Aguas said. “We will also honor the experience of faculty like Professor Travis L. Summersgill who was pressured to resign from W&M in 1956 because his wife was from Japan and therefore in violation of Virginia’s Racial Purity Act disallowing mixed marriage. That same law complicated visits from the parents of Art Matsu, 28W&M’s first Asian American student and famed quarterback. We will also honor the memory of Hatsuye Yamasaki ’37, the first Asian American woman on record at W&M who was a trailblazing student leader from her enrollment in 1933 to her graduation in 1937.” 

The idea for the ceremony was spearheaded by students in the Asian American Student Initiative. Jamelah Jacob ’21 serves as the APM graduation committee co-chair along with Patrick Canteros 20 and said that her ideal graduation ceremony is one that brings many students together. 

“I want it to show how diverse the student body is, I want it to bring together Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, international students — everyone who feels like they have a space in that ceremony. I’m hoping that it’s reaching as many people as possible.” 

“I think my biggest thing personally is that I want a lot of people to be there,” Jacob said. “I want it to show how diverse the student body is, I want it to bring together Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, international students — everyone who feels like they have a space in that ceremony. I’m hoping that it’s reaching as many people as possible.” 

While planning the ceremony, Jacob said she hopes to incorporate views from all students who identify as Asian, Pacific Islander and Middle Eastern. 

“The way we structured the committees, we reached out to different multicultural organizations,” Jacob said. “So we have representatives from organizations like CSO, SASAwe have an international student on our committee, and then we are also working with the Center for Student Diversity.” 

Associate director of the Center for Student Diversity Shené Owens said that her role is to connect students with the College’s resources, including ones designed to support students during their graduation. 

“The Center for Student Diversity serves as an advisor to the students who have formed a committee to plan this ceremony,” Owens said in an email. “I personally sit in on every planning meeting and serve as a liaison between the students and the university’s commencement planning committee.” 

Owens hopes that the ceremony will incorporate familial legacies while honoring the diversity of Asian, Pacific Islander and Middle Eastern experiences. 

“The goal for this upcoming ceremony is to recognize and celebrate the unique traditions that the Asian diaspora,” Owens said. “There is not one specific tradition that represents all the cultures within the diaspora, but as a committee we will do our best to make sure everyone is represented. Within the committee, one common theme has been the importance of celebrating and honoring their families.” 

While the ceremony was partially inspired by the new Asian and Pacific Islander American Studies program at the College, the graduation ceremony also specifically includes students of Middle Eastern descent. Jacob says the decision to include Middle Eastern students in the ceremony was driven by inclusion. 

“At first, it was the Asian Pacific American graduation, from the Asian and Pacific Islander American Studies, that was kind of where the idea was from,” Jacob said. “But we wanted to make it as inclusive as possible, so we wanted not only to invite students who identified as Asian/Pacific American, but we also wanted to invite international students, and we also wanted that inclusivity to be reflected on the name of the actual ceremony.” 

Aguas argues that Middle Eastern students should be also included in traditionally Asian ceremonies. 

“As our esteemed professors in AMES: Asian & Middle Eastern Studies teach, the Middle East is a construct of western imperialism and colonialism (particularly Orientalism) so geographically speaking, we are not including something because it presumes exclusion because the so called Middle East is actually in Asia, specifically South West Asia,” Aguas said. “The sad irony is that the forced moniker has stuck in the United States. People outside the US, especially in Asia, know that from Palestine to Israel to Lebanon to Jordan to Iraq, that all these countries are in Asia. Our hope is that the ceremony becomes a celebration of our students achievements alongside a decolonization and humanization of academia’s most important pomp and circumstance.” 

As the planning process evolves, students can look forward to the graduation ceremony as an inclusive cultural celebration. For Jacob, seeing people excited about the ceremony is rewarding in itself. 

“I think people are really excited that this is happening for the very first time,” Jacob said. “I get email notifications for every registrant, so I just love seeing everybody who is registering for it; I love seeing the number go up. 

“I think people are really excited that this is happening for the very first time,” Jacob said. “I get email notifications for every registrant, so I just love seeing everybody who is registering for it; I love seeing the number go up.