In 2010, I finished graduate school while in Poland, six thousand miles from my university campus. It only took three years, one Fulbright grant, and a 180-page thesis. My mother hauled my academic White Whale around campus for the needed signatures and the requisite margin-measuring (in which each page is measured with a ruler to make sure you are within their strict guidelines), and I was notified via email that everything had been submitted and I would, in fact, be awarded a degree. My classmates walked at the Kings’ stadium, Arco Arena, (RIP) in May; on the day, I was camping in the Polish northern lake district, Mazury. My classmates partied (and then probably curled up in fetal positions and cried); I might have been ceremoniously dumped out of a canoe and baptized in lily pond in honor of my newfound credentials.
When I got back to the States, a classmate gave me his graduation gear: square black mortarboard, traditional hood accessory in gold and white for my university and department, and the long, judicial-looking robe with batwing sleeves. The only time I wore the robe, sans hood, was to the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 midnight premier. My friend and I donned our black commencement robes, Gryffindor-striped ties, and round tortoiseshell glasses; she bought us Slim Jims to take along: makeshift meat wands. Today, four years from HP7-2 and nearly five years from the completion of my degree, I could fit into the Potter subculture crowded into that Sacramento theatre. It’s graduation day for students at my Rwandan university, and I’m dressed the part of a Ravenclaw prefect in a massively oversized blue gown and six-sided mortarboard with a frizzy blue tassel.
Second shot at being an M.A. grad, INES-style
The gown was marked X-Large. When I tried it on in the office, another lecturer doubled over in wheezing laughter, which continued when I exited the room, though I could still hear him going into humor-driven cardiac arrest halfway down the hallway. XL was the only size available: apparently, only tall, hefty people are allowed to be lecturers at this school. I’m 5’4″ on a tall day, so the robe dragged on the gravel and fully engulfed my hands, morphing me into a Muppet-colored ghost. I could hide a lot underneath the voluminous tent of polyester, elegantly made with gathered pin tucks at the shoulders: a pregnancy, a humpback, perhaps a vestigial tail.
Waiting in the morning for the festivities to begin, my graduation partial-burka and I find a seat in a corner, shadowed by the second floor of the building. A camera man stands twenty feet away from me with a camera pointed unapologetically at me on my corner bench- infamy for being a white woman swallowed by a polyester gown trimmed in bronze satin. Or for just being a white woman.
The hat: Ph.D.s, all of us!
Today’s commencement circus is far different from American proceedings. My own cerulean robe and turquoise hat are just the beginning of the Crayola box that surrounds me, a rainbow of colors and styles marking faculties and positions. Jade green for undergraduate students in biotechnology and the sciences, royal blue for business and economics, sunny yellow for education and languages, and black- the usual drab tone of American undergraduate proceedings- for the faculty of law. Professors with full qualifications wear the regalia of their degree-granting institutions: colored robes with sleeves gathered at the wrist and marked with wide stripes. Tan with blue stripes, purple with white. Several INES deans wear green with a wide yellow bib, matching the university flag. One man, clearly a graduate of the School of Fabulousness, wears a ruby red gown and puffy cap, similar to those I saw last year at Georgetown Law’s commencement, sort of King Henry XIII chic, like he had just stepped (or, more accurately, sashayed) out of a painting surrounded by grouse and busty servant ladies. The traditional PhD arm stripes and the inset back of the gown are an ostentatious leopard print: so much fabulous on one man. (Sadly, though, no picture.)
Hats! More hats! Oh the hats!
I like the pomp of academic ceremony, and the tradition that accompanies it. Graduate gear has roots that are nearly a thousand years old, and yet has elements that are mostly common across continents. To be here is to be a part of a tribe that I love and hate in equal measures. I line up with my fellow lecturers, individuals who have studied in Africa, Asia, and Europe, and we prepare to enter in procession behind the crowd of 483 graduating students. We move slowly forward, one strange, colorful blob, toward to the soccer field where a quadrangle of tents has been arranged. The volcano looms above us, the blue beveled peak of Gahinga obscured by the haze. It’s a warm day, no rain to clear out the dust in the air.
Ahead of me, I see large groups of women, some brave enough to balance on pencil stilettos, teetering down the volcanic gravel rock paths. Today, more women than men will graduate, outweighing only by a small margin: 245 women, represented strongly in Accounting and Statistics, and 238 men, also in Accounting, but with large groups in Land Survey and French and English Education. I hope these women continue to advance in their fields, to pursue graduate degrees and return to the institution, injecting much needed gender balance to the academic teaching ranks. Then, at least, the university will be required to invest in some S- and M-sized robes.
Last to walk in to the “stadium”
The reason for the XL is quite clear: the program informs me that out of 79 academic staff members, only 13 are women. I am one of five women in regalia in the procession. The other female lecturers have been recruited for the day’s organization duties and don’t wear robes and mortarboards. A small injustice, but a significant one. Female academics seem almost invisible in procession- just two foreign woman, one head of department, and two female lecturers.
Two female lecturers in traditional Rwandan women’s dress that resembles Grecian wear
The fun of graduation tends to be before and after the actual event. The actual event is long and conducted almost entirely in Kinyarwanda, meaning that I stare more at the audience around me than focus on the delivered content. As per usual at a Rwandan event, officials are all introduced and thanked for attending, from the visiting church officials (INES is Catholic), to the local mayor and government representatives, to the military representative. Then the people who worked on the event are thanked, and the faculty, and the students themselves. Each thanked person or group of people stands and waves jubilantly, and some run out onto the lawn for a 360-degree thanking wave. It’s a process. I think back to my own undergraduate commencement when all of these activities were accomplished in one line: “Thank you, students, faculty, families, and honored guests, for being with us today.” More efficient, yes. But less colorful.
The humidity rises, both under the white tent and inside of my personal cerulean blue tent. There is something strange about sitting here, trying to pay respect to the proceedings, but being so far shut out from them due to language. I shame myself for this, having such poor skills in Kinyarwanda, but even six months of classroom work in the language probably would still not enlighten their speeches to me. There’s always more to what is spoken, what is subtext and underneath the words themselves. Between my American academic culture and Rwandan academic culture, there are some shared concepts and practices, sometimes the lexicon and even part of the wardrobe, but I am still a stranger to so much of what happens, especially what happens in the language, between the people here. I think of the thousand questions I have on a daily basis – and how those get condensed into one or two queries. Sitting for three hours and not understanding ten words- the mind wanders.
Ultimately, though, everyone is waiting for the end, when the speeches are done, the names are read, and the students can finally breathe: it is finished. For me, it is finished comes when I remove my Blue Monster and unpin my cap, hair matted with sweat underneath. Students continue their celebrations and photos in the field as the workers begin to disassemble the tents and fold the chairs. And I walk home, liberated from my academic polyester, free in the breeze.
Love and peace from Musanze.