It was a warm, May day when Erin Coughlin got the call.
"Good morning, Erin," boomed the voice on the other end of the line. "This is Ed Rogalski."
It's not every day a student gets a call from the university's president, so Erin knew it must be important. Rogalski said that the Commencement Committee was discussing moving the spring ceremony to the Mark of the Quad Cities in Moline. He wanted to know how Erin, senior class president on the Student Government Association, thought students would react.
"My immediate response was that this couldn't happen," Erin says. "Graduating under the oaks was something that I had looked forward to since I first set foot on this campus, and the thought of this tradition ending was very discouraging."
Erin got on the phone to gauge reaction, and the comments she heard were not favorable. "All 12 student leaders I spoke with said they wanted commencement to remain under the oaks," she says. "All of us felt that we, as students and a university, had invested too much into the history of under the oaks to let this rich tradition die."
Still, growing enrollments-and therefore larger graduating classes-were a strong argument for the move. "When we were smaller the ceremony worked under the oaks, but we've grown too much," explains Lori Rodrigues-Fisher, vice president of academic affairs and Commencement Committee chair. "With the move, parents and family members would have a comfortable place to sit and a great view of the students receiving their diplomas."
Over the past few years, graduating classes have steadily increased. In spring 2003 alone, 75 more students graduated than three years ago. Each of those students may have five or six guests, potentially adding more than 400 audience members.
Other reasons that made a venue change appealing included a climate-controlled setting, more parking, adequate handicapped-accessible bathrooms and a reception area. This was the experience of the past two years' graduating classes, when bad weather caused day-of shuffles to the Mark. In 2002, it was the first time in more than a decade that commencement hadn't been held outside, on campus.
All of which reinforced arguments for the Mark.
Still, while some students supported the move, many more felt the committee's recommendation, which had already been submitted to the president, needed more deliberation. So Erin, along with SGA senators, decided to explore options for keeping the ceremony on campus.
Senior Rachelle Moore, SGA vice president, was part of that student group but, unlike most of her counterparts, favored the move to the Mark. "For me, having graduation on campus doesn't necessarily reflect what I'm leaving with," she says. "What's more important is having family and friends there. I'd rather have them sitting in bleachers at the Mark than in back of a tree unable to see."
Across campus, Ambrosians voiced their opinion, through conversations and an online survey developed by the students. The survey presented various options, including moving the ceremony to the Lewis Hall lawn or splitting commencement either by Colleges or between undergraduate and graduate students. Of the 557 students and 209 faculty and staff who responded, 71 percent of students and 58 percent of faculty and staff preferred an on-campus ceremony.
In fact, most students said they would be willing to deal with satellite parking, limited restroom facilities and guest lists in order to keep the tradition alive.
SGA presented their findings to the committee, along with a request that, if not under the oaks, graduation at least move to another location on campus.
"For most students, keeping commencement on campus stayed true to St. Ambrose's personalized environment," Rachelle says. "Many felt it was a last gathering at the place where they'd felt comfortable for four years, where they laughed, learned and sometimes struggled."
After candid discussion, though, the committee's recommendation to President Rogalski remained the same: move commencement to the Mark. He accepted the recommendation but also felt it appropriate to hold one last commencement under the oaks.
For the students–mostly seniors–who devoted much of the semester to this issue, the decision was bittersweet. "As a senior, I think it's great," says Erin. "But as a student representative, I was disappointed. It's too bad not everyone will be able to share in a tradition that has been a staple of the university for over 50 years."
Rachelle, on the other hand, was happy with the outcome. "I'm glad the students got what they wanted, but I'm also glad that St. Ambrose is realizing its growth. I'm confident the university can recreate the sense of intimacy that we've known during our time here."
For both students, the process reinforced what SAU is about: a university willing to be better and try new things, to hear people out and be open to change. "It might sound cheesy, but I'm proud to go to a school where, if there's a different avenue to be taken, someone's there to say ‘try it' and see what happens," Rachelle says. "That's what we did."
"It's true that change is never easy," Erin says, "but in some way I guess that's what graduating is about: a change in activity, a change in self-concept."
And one more change–from the home you've known for four years to the world beyond.