"I just love Hobart because of its traditions!" is the common answer from William Smith students when I ask them why they committed to HWS. I admit my college, Hobart College, has some unique traditions. However, I want to consider what traditions exist that belong to Hobart and William Smith Colleges. I want to focus on the tensions within the conversation about commencement seating.
I can easily tell you the traditions that belong to Hobart College, and this is because of the transparency and presence of these traditions in relation to William Smith's and HWS'. During Matriculation all Hobart student's names are recited and we cross Coxe Hall to sign into the college. We are gifted with a certificate, a pen, and a pin all adorning the Hobart seal. We have Charter Day where the honor societies (Orange Key, Chimera, and Druids) are announced. Each inductee gets a gift and a special ceremony is held for them. Then of course there is the most well known Hobart tradition. It involves water and going to a landmark. It is when the seniors are given paddles down by the lake. You thought I was going to mention the peeing on the statue of Elizabeth Blackwell weren't you? Well no that's not a real tradition. That is just a disgusting, disrespectful, disgrace that plagues the Statesmen mentality. However, the example of what happens to Blackwell's statue is relevant in the conversation about traditions at HWS because it brings up a question that is never addressed: What are HWS traditions really? Not just Hobart, not just William Smith, but what actions exist that are inclusive to all students regardless of their race, class, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic class, physical abilities?
The answer is I cannot think of any. I can already hear the rebuttals, "We have classes together! We share the campus." Some other remarks include: "The only thing that's separate are the athletic teams", "There's nothing saying we have to be separated so why do people think we are", but my favorite is "I think everyone here is equal." My responses have changed over time, but now I'm sticking with "And I'm sure you believe that." I will not delve into why these comments are wrong because I want to bring focus back to the topic of commencement seating.
In most colleges and universities the tension about seating wouldn't exist, but because of the coordinate system in place at HWS tensions exist because of the clear divide created. Let be briefly explain the coordinate system. Males are admitted to and attend Hobart College, women are admitted to and attend William Smith Colleges. Notice that male and female identifying were not the words I used. This is the most basic description of the coordinate system and an example of the issues it can create.
Thanks to a William Smith trustee, I know that in the Colleges' past students were allowed to sit with whom every they wanted and diplomas were granted out by peers. Recently, the graduating class was invited to voice their opinion and vote on how seating would happen. While I am a sophomore, I am exploring this issue because I will one day vote and my opinion is clear: I want students to sit wherever they want and get the degrees they have earned.
If you do not go to HWS than this issue may seem outrageous or alien, but it really creates heated debate amongst the campus and alumni community because of how vital "tradition" is to maintaining this college. HWS is a school reliant on legacy students and alumni donations. Our college sells itself on 3 points, study abroad, a guaranteed paid internship, and the liberal arts experience. The sad truth is that a major anchor in the Colleges' marketing is also the coordinate system. Alumni take great pride in their respective alma matter. Students, especially legacy students, love the idea of having a unique college experience when compared to other colleges. The coordinate system offers them that conversation starter. Many do not understand that college is a transaction, very Marxist of me I know. You invest into an education and your return is employment. It's very rare to change a system when it works. For the majority of students who come here this system works for them. As a liberal Latino from L.A. tradition isn't something that attracts me. The coordinate system does nothing for me, in fact I think my parents are overpaying. Continuing with my Marxist critique, the reason commencement stays separated is because erasing this "tradition" would upset the donors who have nostalgia for the coordinate system. Fun fact, the history of the word nostalgia means missing something that never happened. Many who have suggested eliminating the coordinate system have been shut down immediately, once again because of how vital that element is to this college's financial stability. Alumni, donors, potential students, like the idea of something unique, but they think only of themselves and their bodies. The separation at commencement keeps the cash coming back, but it also pushes students out with serious trauma.
The separation of commencement seating forces non cisgender students, and queer students, to submit to a heteronormative college experience that no doubt can be a violent one. I remember that at my Matriculation there were 2 Hobart seniors who stayed a whole extra year because the Colleges would not grant them Hobart degrees. Keep in mind, this event is for first years. But these students were adamant that while the Colleges called them William Smith students they knew they deserved Hobart degrees. Queer people, openly queer people, are some of the strongest people on this campus. We go through the everyday just trying to be us in a world that screams, "Your too feminine you sure you go to Hobart?" or "That girl just came to William Smith to munch on Smithie box." Performing gender is hit with steroids on this campus. There is a sense of entitlement among people with their college and they forget that some their peers are attacked by this pride. I admit, I think a lot of privileged students do not care or consider their peers pain. This is because combining my Marxist and queer critique, this intuition prides itself on having a system of separation that glorifies the experience of those privileged enough to afford it and exist in it.
The separation at commencement seating not only ignores the points before, but it also leaves students of color with even less reason to return to HWS because of this final divide in their already fractioned experience on campus. I will give credit to HWS in the sense that there are many people on this campus who are allies and are pushing for social equity. The problem is that the powers near the top of tree are not responsive to grass root effects. For example, our Title IX office and Office of Diversity and Inclusion were opened because the Colleges had to respond. I will not condemn only HWS, many colleges work the same way. When student and alumni pressure is ongoing than the institution must adjust accordingly. It is also no secret that students of color do not feel fully integrated into the HWS experience. Being Latino, I have definitely had some shell shock moments. From being confused for an international student, to being complimented on my great English skills, and being told I could not be someone's boyfriend because I wasn't white, I have heard it all. Candidly, my time here has not been terrible because I am not afraid to force myself into spaces. But my behavior is not common because for many this would result in violent back lash. For recent graduates or current students of color, the idea that they will not give back is all too often. Having this separate seating once again makes a visible divide amongst students. What many of my peers forget is that their experience is not ours as people of color. Going to parties is hard because they see us and already erase us. Being in class our comments are discounted because we are seen as angry or bias. I can make lists about the divide, but the seating at the end creates divides within the colleges too because then it makes it okay to create niches.
This conversation about commencement seating is definitely a multi faceted one, but ignoring to go deeper than the point of it being "tradition" is hindering any attempt by the Colleges to really be inclusive. I once again push for the Colleges to allow students to sit where they feel comfortable and validated. While some students may feel offended, let's really think about whose getting offended, those who are privileged enough to allow us to feel attacked everyday. I am excited for this commencement and I am even more excited that in a few short weeks I will be a junior in college. Let's so Class of 2019 and let's go to England!
Author William Samayoa
Marketer by profession and storyteller by passion. L.A. raised, proud Latino, and pop culture enthusiast.