By Bonnie Johnson and Ronni Williams
It is graduation time in Tennessee! In addition to the college and departmental graduation ceremonies, the University of Tennessee hosts two affinity ceremonies: Multicultural Graduation and Recognition Ceremony, and Lavender Graduation. These two affinity events complement the larger university ceremonies and provide special recognition of students with marginalized identities.
Multicultural Graduation & Recognition Ceremony
The history of multicultural graduations has been a long-standing tradition at both the University of Tennessee and many other public institutions. The Office of Multicultural Student Life (MSL) began hosting its own affinity ceremony in the early 2000s to honor and support students of color for overcoming barriers to graduation. The event also celebrates our first-year students from the Multicultural Mentoring Program that have earned a 3.0 GPA and higher, recognizes the Brothers United for Excellence (MSL’s men of color initiative), and awards recipients with several different scholarships designed to aid marginalized students.
Ronni Williams, assistant director of Multicultural Student Life shared that “the Multicultural Graduation and Recognition Ceremony is special and unique because it provides the opportunity for our students to not only be recognized but to also be their authentic selves. We not only celebrate our graduates and the hard work that they have accomplished, but we invite their families and celebrate the unique cultures and perspectives that they bring.”
We asked Ronni what she is looking forward to the most this year, and she shared that,
One really exciting piece of the ceremony is a section where 3-4 of our graduates will read the Torchbearer Creed in their first language, as well as the language that the majority of their family speaks. We will take this opportunity to also ask the families and friends of our graduates to stand to be recognized. I think this is a special way to show our families that we see them and value their presence in both their child’s life and at the ceremony itself.
Similar to the Multicultural Graduation and Recognition Ceremony, Lavender Graduation is an affinity ceremony honoring graduating LGBTQIA+ students, acknowledging their accomplishments and struggles to make it to graduation. It is hosted by the UT Pride Center and has grown to celebrate over twenty participating graduates each year.
Bonnie Johnson, coordinator of the Pride Center, looks forward to celebrating with students each year. “Lavender Graduation is one of the Pride Center’s largest and most well-attended events of the year. This smaller, more intimate ceremony focuses more on each individual graduate and their own unique journeys to get their diploma.”
When asked what makes the ceremony special to her, Bonnie warmly shared that,
Participants submit a short autobiographical statement to be read aloud as they are recognized, highlighting everything from accomplishments and campus participation to personal shout-outs to friends, faculty, and staff members that helped them along the way. Bring a tissue—they can be real tearjerkers! As the ceremony winds down over food and drink, the graduates sign a well-worn rainbow flag covered in the signatures of past Lavender participants. This tradition truly highlights that they are part of a proud LGBTQ+ history here at UTK.
Some LGBTQIA+ students are not “out” to their guests at graduation, and Lavender Graduation creates an intentionally accepting space where these students can still celebrate their accomplishments and their full selves, surrounded by their chosen families on campus. In 1995, Lavender Graduation was created by Dr. Ronni Sanlo at the University of Michigan and has grown to be a celebration at over 500 college campuses across the nation.
Affinity spaces like the Pride Center and the Frieson Black Cultural Center provide resources and support to students. Hannah Chong, a graduating senior involved with Multicultural Student Life, says it best:
There are many established obstacles, such as test scores and finances, standing between a student and entrance into college. Beyond that, there are less
obvious cultural and societal hurdles that vary for each student. Getting into college is an accomplishment in itself. Then once you are in college, you face semesters of difficult courses and other trials. So, when any student has overcome the odds and made it to graduation, they should be celebrated for their work and dedication. However, it is important to acknowledge that those odds are typically higher for students of color and students in the LGBTQIA+ community. Events such as the Multicultural Graduation and the Lavender Graduation are great ways to take the time to recog
nize and celebrate those students. Supporting these celebrations is akin to telling those graduating seniors, ‘I see you and am proud you.’
As Devon Suarez, a junior studying Computer Science and student assistant at the Pride Center, notes, “To me, ‘general space’ encourages uniformity and an ‘acceptable representation’ of myself [for the comfort of others], but affinity spaces allow for people of various identities not only to exist without fear but with comfort. They are what have allowed me not only to find friends but to grow as a person and feel comfortable occupying space in this world.”
Acknowledgment and celebration opportunities provide motivation and incentive to keep excelling and doing well throughout their time at UT. The significance of affinity ceremonies is evident, and we welcome all staff, faculty, and students to attend in support of our fellow Vols.
The Multicultural Graduation and Recognition Ceremony will be hosted at the Student Union Auditorium on Tuesday, April 23 starting at 6 pm, with a reception in the Student Union Ballroom immediately following.
Lavender Graduation will be hosted in the Student Union Ballroom C on Thursday, April 25 from 6 pm to 8 pm. All members of our campus community are invited to attend both ceremonies.