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Commencements

The first final exercises at VAMC were held at the end of the year even though there were no graduates. The exercises began on Sunday, July 6, 1873, and ended the following Wednesday night, July 9. Events included religious ceremonies, inspections, orations by students, and a review of the cadets. Gov. Gilbert C. Walker, the main speaker for the first finals, spoke on “The Present and Future of the Agricultural and Mechanical College in Connection with General Education.”

The first class graduated in 1875, when 12 students (the first student to register, William Addison Caldwell, did not graduate until the following year) received their diplomas, not degrees, completing a three-year course of study. The finals were held that year on Aug. 11.

The first degrees were presented in 1883.

The finals program was enlarged after 1889 to include two baccalaureate services, an alumni orator, a cadet ball, and a sham battle staged by cadets. By 1898 finals had been expanded to a six-day program, including a senior dance, dress parade and review, a dramatic presentation, religious services, competitive drills, receptions, sham battle, band concert, essay presentations, and orations by members of the Lee and Maury Literary Societies.

After Paul B. Barringer became president in 1907, commencement exercises were shortened considerably. His successor, Joseph D. Eggleston, expanded them again. Since then, commencement has been expanded or contracted to meet the circumstances of the times.

The commencement in 1917, the year the United States entered World War I, was not conducted as usual and was not accompanied by an alumni reunion. President Eggleston spoke at the simple ceremony, urging students under 21 to remain in college. Degrees had been awarded to seniors in good standing at the time they volunteered for military service, so only a few seniors were left to receive diplomas at commencement. The session that year closed on May 31.

During World War II, commencement exercises were held more than once a year because of an accelerated program. In 1942, for the first time, degrees were awarded during a simple graduation ceremony at the end of each quarter. Social activities for the spring commencement that year were cancelled but commencement itself was still held, and the first Ph.D. ever awarded by Virginia Tech was presented during that ceremony.

After World War II, Virginia Tech returned to the practice of having only one commencement ceremony a year, and that one was held at the close of the academic year. This practice continued until 1990, when commencement exercises were added at the close of fall semester as well.

From 1958 to 1962 duplicate ceremonies were held in Burruss Auditorium, with part of the class graduating in the morning and the other in the afternoon because of the auditorium’s limited seating capacity.

Separate academic college ceremonies, following an all-university ceremony, were held for the first time in June 1971 at various campus locations.

In a move to shorten the commencement ceremony, university officials eliminated the presentation of individual doctoral degrees, and Friday, May 4, 1990, marked the first separate graduation ceremony for doctoral students. It was held in Cassell Coliseum.

In 2003 severe state budget cuts threatened the fall commencement, but local lodging establishments provided enough financial support to preclude cancellation of the ceremony. That same year, to accommodate the large number of college and department ceremonies that were scheduled on a Saturday, both undergraduate and graduate commencement ceremonies were held on a Friday, with the undergraduate ceremony beginning at 11 a.m. and the graduate ceremony at 3 p.m. The following year (2004), the undergraduate ceremony was moved to Friday night, followed on Saturday with individual department and/or college ceremonies, a trend that has continued.

Commencement Sites

  • 1873-79 Blacksburg Methodist Church
  • 1880-91 Pavilion and Second Academic Building
  • 1892 a large tent on campus
  • 1893-95 Pavilion
  • 1896-1904 Commencement Hall
  • 1905-14 Chapel (Library)
  • 1915-21 Commencement Hall
  • 1922 a large tent on campus (semi-centennial)
  • 1923-26 Commencement Hall
  • 1927-35 Memorial Gym
  • 1936-49 Burruss Auditorium
  • 1950-57 Miles Stadium
  • 1958-62 Burruss Auditorium (dual ceremonies)
  • 1963-68 Coliseum
  • 1969-70 Lane Stadium
  • 1971-91 Lane Stadium (all-university, spring), followed by separate college ceremonies at various locations
  • 1990 Burruss Hall (first fall commencement since WWII)
  • 1991-current Cassell Coliseum (fall)
  • 1992 Cassell Coliseum (all-university, spring)
  • 1993-current Lane Stadium (all-university, spring).

Commencement Regalia-The first time the faculty and graduates wore academic regalia at commencement was at the 1922 semi-centennial exercise.

Diplomas-The original VAMC diploma (1875-94) was 12 inches wide by 18 inches. From 1895-62, the size was 17 inches wide by 14 inches. An 11-inch-wide by 8-1/2-inch diploma printed on stretched sheepskin and placed in a hard-back folder was adopted in 1962 and put into effect in 1963. In 1983 the university began printing diplomas on paper of 15.5 inches by 13.5 inches.

Valedictorian and Salutatorian-The practice of having a valedictorian and salutatorian speak at Commencement began in 1882, and the selection of the two honorees was based on class academic rank. The selections were based on popularity from 1916-20 and on the basis of scholarship from 1921-36, although the class still selected the recipients from among the top academic students. In 1932 the class selected the third- and fourth-ranked students, both males, even though the top student was a woman, Miss F. R. Aldrich, and the second-ranked student was transfer student Mr. H. H. Addlestone. Aldrich’s QCA was 2.84 (with 3.0 being the highest possible average), and the elected valedictorian’s, 2.62. Carol M. Newman, head of the Department of English and Foreign Languages and for whom Newman Library is named, wrote to President Burruss to apprise him of the senior class’s selections: “It is easy to see why the class made the selection it did, Miss Aldrich being a girl and Mr. Addlestone having been a student here for only two years. Personally, I have no inclination to question the right of the class to select its own salutatorian and valedictorian but think it best to call to your attention the circumstances connected with the case.” Aldrich’s friends accused the college of discriminating against women, but Burruss told them that the top student had not always been selected valedictorian. The male student selected for the honor refused to serve unless an announcement was made at the commencement exercises that Miss Aldrich had achieved the highest academic standing. The senior class accepted his proposal and requested Burruss to make such an announcement at commencement time, which he did. The naming of a valedictorian and salutatorian was discontinued after 1936.



1873 Commencement Speech by Governor of Virginia

    1873 Commencement

Download a PDF of the first commencement