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Get up to speed on graduation
Graduation is a tradition that goes back centuries, but how much do you really know about this grand event? Why do people wear academic gowns? Why do graduates throw their hats in the air? And what does alumni really mean?

Editors' note: Since graduation season is rolling around again, we've unearthed this expert advice so you can ace your graduation day.


The word alumni gets thrown around a lot. Sometimes it’s even used correctly. But before we go there, let’s start with where the word comes from.

No surprise it’s Latin. Starting with the word ‘alere’, which means ‘to nourish’, it became ‘alumnus’ which was Roman for foster child. Then around the 17th century it took on the meaning we use today.

So what does alumni mean?


Strictly speaking ‘alumni’ is the plural of alumnus, which is a male person who has graduated. Yes, a male. The female equivalent is alumna and the plural is alumnae. A mixed group of males and females are all called alumni.

Don’t rush to memorise all that though, because alumni seems to be a word in transition. These days people refer to males and females as alumni. It’s also used as the singular term - so he’s an alumni, she’s an alumni, all of them are alumni. It’s not strictly correct, but hey, when has the English language ever been strict?


All this means that when you graduate you become an alumni and part of the University of Sydney alumni community. There are thousands of alumni all around the world who have access to our range of alumni services and a free subscription to Sydney Alumni Magazine (SAM). Find out more about what it means to be an alumni.

Grad fact: There is also the word ‘graduand’. From the time you officially pass your exams and are entitled to graduate, to the time you actually do graduate, you are a graduand.


University of Sydney graduation ceremonies happen all around the world, but the grandest graduations happen on main campus in the Great Hall. And when they called it the Great Hall, they meant it.

When it was finished around 1856, the Great Hall was the largest single room structure in Australia before the Sydney Town Hall was built. Not that it scored many brownie points for that. While it was under construction, the newspapers of the time were full of letters from unimpressed Sydneysiders saying it was a big white elephant, i.e. expensive and useless.


The Great Hall is anything but useless today. Since the first graduation there in 1859, thousands of University of Sydney students have left that grand room ready to take on the world.

If might feel a bit like a church (it was designed by Edmund Thomas Blacket who was renowned for his churches), but the angels on the ceiling are holding books of knowledge, not Bibles, and the stained glass windows tell the story of 1000 years of learning. So as graduation locations go, the Great Hall is the greatest.

Grad fact: The Great Hall is built in the style poetically called Tudor Perpendicular Gothic.


Could graduation day be any more Harry Potter? Right down to the University and Hogwarts both having a Great Hall (though the University grabbed that name about 140 years before JK Rowling). And of course, on graduation day, everyone wears academic gowns, just like Harry.

The history of the gowns goes way back to the 11th or 12th century. The very earliest universities were run by the Church and classes were initially held in actual big, draughty churches. So students had to dress appropriately in modest, church-approved clothing that also kept them warm.


Over the centuries the gowns have evolved – Henry VIII had quite a big influence - to become what we have today. The Sydney University gown traditions take its lead from Oxford and Cambridge, and when a new degree is created, the faculty chooses the representative colour. The University of Sydney Union currently offers more than 350 gown variations.

Grad fact: Some people say it’s good luck to put some money in the gown hood because that’s where Medieval friars would put the money they were given when begging.


Let’s get the mortar-board etiquette out of the way first. Women can wear a mortar board whether they’re sitting or standing. Men should remove their mortar board when they sit. That’s the theory anyway based on a long-standing tradition that may have something to do with how hair styles used to be.

The mortar board is called that because it looks like the board that bricklayers use to hold the mortar. Its real name is a trencher cap and it’s the ancestor of the Pileus cap worn at Oxford and Cambridge in the 17th century.

For PhDs and the higher doctorates, you’ll also see the Tudor bonnet. No mortar-board look here. The Tudor bonnet is a soft velvet cap that you might recognise from paintings of the most famous Tudor of all, Henry VIII.


Adding the tassel was approved by Oxford in 1770 and it has its own tradition. Before you take to the stage for your big moment, it is important that the tassel on your trencher remains on the left side when preceding to the dais to receive your testamur on stage. Once the photograph of you is complete, take a step back and salute the Chancellor (or delegate). Then turn and walk down the stairs to take your new seat with direction from the return seat usher.

Grad fact: The tradition of throwing graduation headgear into the air started around 1912 at a US naval academy. No-one is 100% sure why, but it’s thought that the graduates were given officer hats on graduation day, and they threw off their student hats in celebration.


Your study may be over, but you will always be part of the University of Sydney alumni community. So you hear about the latest alumni events and resources, make sure you keep us updated with your contact details.

27 September 2016


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