Looking Back on Commencement Traditions

Looking Back on Commencement Traditions

Looking Back on Commencement Traditions

Though Georgia Tech’s first students enrolled 127 years ago, the Institute celebrated its 250th Commencement exercises in December 2015. We look back at Commencements through the years. In some ways much has changed, but variations on the earliest traditions remain.

Tech celebrated its first Commencement on June 18, 1890, with two graduates. Prior to the ceremony, the Georgia School of Technology opened the doors of its shops to the public for students to show guests what they had been working over the course of the year. This public viewing remained part of Tech’s graduation activities for many years following, and a semblance of this tradition lives on in Tech’s Capstone Design Expo and other year-end presentations that take place throughout campus today.


Even in its earliest ceremonies, speakers focused on the Institute’s prestige and rigor, and encouraged graduates to make the most of their careers. A few snippets of early Commencement commentary:

quote - Every legislator that comes into office should watch the progress of this institution. Let them see what is being done and the good that is being accomplished.

quote - Here you have been taught to fear nothing but idleness.

quote - Education, however thorough and complete, does not make the success. Of itself it accomplishes no results. It is the use which you make of it which will decide  its value.

text - Historical Highlights


Tech celebrates its first Commencement with two graduates. Prior to the ceremony, Tech opened its shops to the public for others to see the students’ work over the course of the year.


A debate between the Phi Eta Sigma and Euphronia Literary Societies is introduced into the graduation ceremony.


Commencement festivities include a parade and public carnival on Grant Field. 


Ceremony is held at the Fox Theatre, which happened periodically in future years.


Honor Day, Commencement Exercises, and Military Day are combined into one “streamlined” program. Of the 460 graduates, 374 go straight into the armed forces. 


At the 55th Commencement, 188 wartime graduates received degrees, including 60 Navy and 50 Army ROTC students. Three ceremonies were held that year, with the third term being accelerated because of World War II.


Ceremony moves back to the Fox Theatre, partly chosen for the air-conditioned environment. The Technique writes an editorial asking students to support Commencement Week activities that the students and administration have organized. 


Of the 965 graduates who get degrees that June, 85 percent were veterans of WWII. 


Tech’s first two females – Diane Michel and Shirley Clements – walk across the stage. 


75th Commencement


The Institute celebrates its 75th Anniversary. Commencement events included a president’s reception for graduates and their guests at the president’s home the night before Commencement exercises.


Tech’s first African-American student, Ronald Yancey, graduates at the 82nd Commencement at the Fox Theatre. 


Tech moves to four graduations a year (one per quarter) and hosts its 89th Commencement in December. 


The December ceremony is canceled because of bad weather. 


Gloria Shatto is the first woman to give a Commencement address. 


Fall Commencement acknowledges the 10,000th co-op graduate.


Commencement ceremonies are split into two ceremonies: one for undergraduates students and one for graduate students. 


The graduating classes had grown to 2,162 graduates in spring and 1,250 in fall.


Carrie Harris, the great, great granddaughter of Georgia Tech founder Nathaniel Harris, earns a degree in industrial engineering. 


Spring undergraduate Commencement is split into two ceremonies.


Tech celebrates its 250th Commencement with around 2,800 graduates in ceremonies at McCamish Pavilion.


Sources: Archival materials from The Whistle, The Atlanta-Constitution, The Technique, The Blueprint, the Georgia Tech Library Archives, and the Georgia Tech Living History Program.