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Cornell joins 'rainbow graduation' tradition

'We must be very intentional about recognizing and celebrating those differences'

Tassels and “rainbow diplomas” are shown following a special graduation ceremony for LGBTQ students at Cornell College in Mount Vernon.
Tassels and “rainbow diplomas” are shown following a special graduation ceremony for LGBTQ students at Cornell College in Mount Vernon.
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A growing list of colleges and universities — from California to New Hampshire and everywhere in between — that annually hold graduation ceremonies to specifically honor members of the LGBTQ community got a little longer this year.

Mount Vernon’s Cornell College over the weekend joined the colorful tradition with its inaugural “Rainbow Graduation” to acknowledge “the tenacity and hard work” of seniors who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning. A total of 10 graduates were honored before an audience of about 50 family and friends — including Cornell President Jonathan Brand and Dean of Students Gwen Schimek.

“We are still in a time where we need to fully recognize the extra layer of stress, tension, systemic subjugation and cultural vitriol that is rampant in our media today,” Cornell theater professor Janeve West said. “We need to recognize there are those students among us who carry more weight than others.”

The celebration, which took root under azure skies amid rainbow-wrapped trees on campus Sunday evening, is separate from Cornell’s traditional commencement ceremonies on tap for the coming weekend. It followed in what has become tradition for some campuses nationally that, for years and even decades, have hosted similar “lavender” or “rainbow” graduations — including the University of Iowa, which held its on Tuesday.

Sponsors for the party — involving “words of wisdom,” rainbow tassels and cake — included Cornell’s Third Wave Resource Group, which advocates for feminist causes, Gender Safe Space and Alliance. Behind its inception though was West, who personally identifies in the LGBTQ group and said she would have liked something similar when she was a graduate.

“It’s very important for our young people to see themselves celebrated,” West said.

As more and more of these LGBTQ-specific ceremonies have cropped up across the country, West said, she started wondering why Cornell didn’t have one — and decided to press the issue. She didn’t know whether administrators and student leaders would be interested.

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“Our first conversation was like, ‘Why don’t we already have this?’ ” West said, noting Cornell’s history of inclusion and acceptance.

“We develop the well-being, and a sense of well-being, of each student and help them figure out who they are and how they can and should actively engage in their own lives,” she said. “Cornell doesn’t just give lip-service to that. We really mean it. We are excited about developing the whole person.”

Cornell junior Finley Cowlishaw, a student leader with the Alliance and Gender Safe Space groups, said she hopes the event sticks and becomes tradition. Now 21 years old and a member of the LGBTQ community, she knows well the struggles many face.

“There can be homophobia and transphobia in academia, and it can be hard for students to excel as well as people with more privilege,” she said. “Having that recognition for the hard work that you do and overcoming those obstacles is really rewarding and validating.”

The events have incited some criticism nationally, with questions around the ceremonies’ cost and necessity. To those, West said, she’d like to see all sorts of groups celebrated.

“What I hope is that one day, graduation day or graduation week is filled with other individual graduations,” she said, reporting campuses with ceremonies for black students, or Latinos, or first-generation pupils.

“I would love an entire week of going from one celebration after another to recognize that we each carry with us our different weights, challenges and cultural strengths as well,” West said. “I think now more than ever we are in a time where we must be very intentional about recognizing and celebrating those differences and diversity that makes this country strong.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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