This time of year, ceremonies across the United States honor millions of students for completing their schoolwork. I'm Steve Ember with Phoebe Zimmermann. We tell about some graduation traditions and speeches in our report this week on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.
Spring and early summer are usually satisfying times for students who have completed the requirements of their schools. American high schools, colleges and universities hold ceremonies to honor these graduates. A school group often sings or plays at these events. Other musicians may also perform. School organization leaders and excellent students are recognized with awards. Clergy members sometimes lead opening and closing prayers. Many graduating classes present a gift to the school. Sometimes the students write a class song.
For most students, the most important part of the ceremony is the awarding of documents showing that they have graduated. The school's directors and teachers present these diplomas or degrees.
Many traditions are linked to graduation. Graduates often wear special clothing including hats called mortarboards. These hats have a flat, square top covered with cloth. At some schools, students write on the hats.
Some write the year of their graduation. Others write their own names or the names of boyfriends or girlfriends. Still others write funny sayings or the names of rock and roll groups they like. Some students draw pictures or paint on their hats. At many colleges and universities, graduates throw the mortarboards in the air after the ceremonies. Guests then can take home a hat if they like.
Many high schools and colleges publish a yearbook. This book contains photos of the class members and memories of their school years. Students write good wishes in each other's yearbooks.
Families honor their graduating members with gifts. They take pictures at the ceremonies. They attend special meals prepared for the graduates and their guests. At some colleges and universities, the graduates march to the center where the ceremonies will be held.
Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, holds a huge such procession. Late last month, more than six-thousand graduates, teachers, parents and other guests marched down the school's College Hill. Musicians played bagpipes and drums as they walked to the school's commencement exercises.
Another tradition at Brown is the presentation of honorary degrees. Most other American colleges also do this. They award degrees to people who have done excellent work in the arts, public service or science. Among those honored at Brown this year were actress and Brown graduate Laura Linney and Chinese dissident Xu Wenli.
Large universities sometimes divide students into groups to receive their degrees. For example, one ceremony may be held for students who mainly studied biology. Another may be held for students whose major study area was music.
The awarding of college degrees is an especially exciting moment for the graduates. At many schools they walk across a stage -- a raised structure -- to receive their degrees. Family members and friends shout as each name is read. An orchestra plays traditional graduation music.
Many American colleges invite someone well known to give the main commencement address, or speech. The schools invite government officials, including presidents of the United States. They invite scientists, actors, musicians, and artists. They invite educators and business leaders.
Some schools invite foreign officials or religious leaders to talk to their graduates. For example, the Aga Khan has spoken several times at major American universities. He is the spiritual leader of millions of Shiite Ismaili Muslims.
Over the years, American presidents have sometimes made history while giving graduation addresses. In nineteen-sixty three, John Kennedy spoke at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Great tension existed between the United States and the former Soviet Union at the time.
President Kennedy noted that the two sides were producing many weapons. America's thirty-fifth president said there was a better way to spend money. He said it could be used to fight poor living conditions, disease and lack of education.
Later that year, Mr. Kennedy was murdered. His vice president, Lyndon Johnson, followed him in office. President Johnson spoke to graduates of the University of Michigan in nineteen-sixty four. During his speech, historians say, he used the expression "Great Society" for the first time in public. This name later was given to social reform programs that his government established.
This year, President Bush made a major policy proposal when he spoke to graduates of the University of South Carolina in Columbia, South Carolina. He suggested a free trade area in the Middle East.
Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont is a member of the opposition Democratic Party. He spoke at Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont. The school is the oldest private military college in the United States. It also serves civilian students.
In his address, Senator Leahy expressed satisfaction that American-led military forces had freed the Iraqi people from a dictator. But he also said nations with powerful militaries have, in his words, "time and again, made tragic mistakes that led to their downfall."
Former Secretary of State James Baker also commented on the military. He praised United States forces for their performance in the recent war in Iraq. He spoke at graduation ceremonies at Texas A-and-M University in College Station, Texas.
Mr. Baker served as the nation's top diplomat during the administration of President Ronald Reagan. As such, he helped organize the military coalition that defeated Iraq in the nineteen-ninety-one Persian Gulf War.
Other speakers offered graduates personal advice. Writer Antwone Fisher spoke at Cleveland State University in Cleveland, Ohio. Mr. Fisher urged his listeners to write about their lives and thoughts. He said they should do this even if they shared the writing only with family. He said, "You can make yourself live forever through writing."
Former Senator George Mitchell spoke at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania. Mr. Mitchell won international praise after he negotiated a peace agreement in Northern Ireland in nineteen-ninety-eight. He advised graduates to work hard to help others. George Mitchell said he hoped that they could find a valuable goal.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson spoke at the University of Wisconsin in Eu Claire. Mr. Thompson told graduates that some of their plans would fail and some of their ideas would be wrong. But he said they needed only a few simple things to lead a good life: "A sound mind. A strong body. A loving heart ... "
Graduates of New York University in New York City heard an address by their president, John Sexton. He commented on the long history of higher education. Mr. Sexton said eighty-five human organizations have existed continually for more than five-hundred years. Seventy of these institutions, he said, were universities.
Graduation marks an end to an important time in a student's life. But the event also marks a beginning.
Many graduates of American high schools and colleges will continue their education. Others will begin their working lives. As one former student said, "I worked hard in school. Now I am ready to find out what the rest of the world is like."
This VOA Special English program was written by Jerilyn Watson. It was produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Phoebe Zimmermann. And I'm Steve Ember. Join us again next week for another report about life in the United States on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.