Just over two years after laying the cornerstone for South College in 1820, the first Amherst College Commencement took place on August 28, 1822, featuring only two graduates, Ebenezer Strong Snell and Pindar Field. From those modest beginnings, Commencement has continued to grow and evolve, and is now an event attended by students and families from across the country and around the world.

Amherst College’s Commencement ceremonies today look little like they did over 200 year ago, but many of the original traditions, in whole or in part, remain, with more recent traditions being added in the 21st century. Each year Commencement is, as always, a special event that helps provide graduates, faculty, and staff with a connection to the past and an insiration for future Amherst graduates.

Senior Assembly

Held in Johnson Chapel on an evening after classes have ended, Senior Assembly is a traditional ceremony in which the faculty honors the graduating students. 

After a procession, the Provost and Dean of the Faculty opens the ceremony, and the President awards prizes and honorary class memberships. Two students and a faculty member address the graduating class, and the ceremony ends with a recessional.

See our Senior Assembly page for links to recent Senior Assembly media, including photos and videos of the event.

Honorary Degree Talks

Many schools award honorary degrees; few place as much prominence as Amherst does on celebrating the voices and contributions of these esteemed guests. Nominations for honorary degrees are received throughout the year from the Amherst community. The nominations cover a wide range of professions and always include some alumni. The trustees vote on the honorary degrees, which are usually presented at the Commencement Exercises. Past degrees have included Doctor of Divinity, Doctor of Humane Letters, Doctor of Laws, Doctor of Letters, Doctor of Literature, Doctor of Music, and Doctor of Science.

Every year, on the day before Commencement, the chosen honorees speak to graduating seniors and their families. To see an archive of these speakers, visit our Honorary Degrees page.

National Flags

Every graduate that crosses the Commencement stage to accept their diploma passes in front of their country’s flag, because each year the stage features flags representing the home countries of all members of the graduating class.

This Amherst tradition also includes the display of additional flags, from nearly every country, on the ramps leading to the stage, to highlight the broad heritage of the campus community.

“Three Gifts” & “Hymn to Amherst”

Two hymns are standards on Amherst College Commencement weekend: “Three Gifts” by Lisa Smith Van der Linden ’89 and “Hymn to Amherst” by Janet B. Morgan and Henry G. Mishkin. Written in 1955, “Hymn to Amherst” has been included in the Commencement program since 1965.

Three Gifts

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Hymn to Amherst

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The Maces

Three graduating seniors lead their classmates in the Commencement procession. Each of the three carries a ceremonial mace. The faculty marshal also carries a mace in the academic procession—one that includes an engraving listing every previous faculty marshal, beginning with William K. Green, who served from 1924 to 1956.

The honorary marshal—usually an alum—carries a mace as well; that mace is engraved with the names of the 69 honorary marshals who served from 1918 to 1986.

Phebe and Zephaniah Swift Moore Awards

In 1997, Amherst College instituted the Phebe and Zephaniah Swift Moore Awards program to honor outstanding high school teachers and to express appreciation for the profession of teaching. At Commencement, the awards are presented to three outstanding secondary school teachers who challenged, inspired, and moved members of the graduating class. 

The recipients are chosen by a committee of seniors, faculty, and staff from nominations submitted by graduating seniors, and are invited to Amherst as guests of the college. 

The awards are named for Zephaniah Swift Moore, the first president of the college, and his wife Phebe.

The Conway Canes

Each graduate receives a chestnut cane as they cross the Commencement stage, a tradition that dates to 2003, when a group of students revived a 19th-century Amherst practice that celebrated class unity and spirit. 

Made possible by a gift from Brian J. Conway ’80 and Kevin J. Conway ’80 to endow the Fund for College Canes, what are now known as the Conway Canes serve as an enduring symbol of the graduates’ connection to their class and their alma mater. 

According to Amherst lore, they are also a metaphor for a college education, as they support graduates throughout their lives.