Graduation as a Rite of Passage

The year was 1987. The season was spring, the season of graduations. We had rehearsals. Girls chose boys to walk with. We sent out invitations. As I collected my cap and gown, I wondered what all the hoopla was about. In my mind, graduation was simply acknowledging that we had met the requirements to earn a high school diploma;  something I, fortunately, found quite easy. I had turned 18 months earlier with little fanfare, I don’t recall telling myself, “Wow, now you’re an adult.” Nor did my parents or anyone else say this to me. That’s unfortunate. 

While I did have plans to leave home and start college that fall, at the time of graduation I was living in the moment. With friends planning to go separate ways, and not knowing what the future would hold, my goal was to make the most of the summer before going away to college.

Now, with a few years under my belt, and a child getting closer to her own graduation, I have a different perspective. I recognize high school graduation, and all graduations, for what they are: a rite of passage. 

According to the dictionary, a rite of passage is a ceremony or event marking an important stage in someone’s life. I find that definition sorely lacking in describing the momentousness of graduation. Other sources get closer: “It involves a significant change of status in society.” A rite of passage can involve leaving one group for another, entering a new world. Thus, graduation is the recognition that the graduates are leaving the group of youth, and entering the world of adulthood. 

I thought that maybe it was just my family that failed to instill in me the significance of graduation as a rite of passage into adulthood. Rather than acknowledge  that this was a big deal, I sensed that my parents were just relieved to kick their baby bird out of the nest. After 40 years of parenting, including raising seven children, that’s understandable. 

Some research into the topic, however, led me to see that it might not be just my family that neglects to honor this rite of passage. It might be a quirk in Western culture. 

Anthropologists and social scientists have long noted the difference between cultures that value and emphasize the group (collectivist), and cultures that value the individual (individualist). Individualist societies include the United States and much of Europe. Collectivist societies include much of Asia, Africa, Latin America, and indigenous populations everywhere. There appear to be many more examples of cultural acknowledgement of the youth passing into adulthood in collectivist societies. 

For example, the quinceanera, is a common celebration of a girl’s passage into adulthood at the age of 15 in many Latin American cultures; it is both a religious and social event that emphasizes the importance of family and society in the life of a young woman. The quinceanera is celebrated by going to church followed by a festive, dance party. The dance party is a big deal. The girl’s dress is as important as a woman’s wedding dress. Participants spend weeks rehearsing the ceremony and dances. 

Japan dedicates an annual public holiday to help young people recognize their passage into adulthood. Coming of Age Day includes ceremonies and parties among family and friends.

Indigenous cultures have countless ways to initiate youth into adulthood. One is the vision quest. The movie Vision Quest, filmed in Spokane in 1985, is one of my all-time-favorite movies. Ironically, when I first saw the movie as a teen, I didn’t know what a vision quest was. I don’t remember the movie explaining it. But I had a roommate in college who had chosen to go on her own vision quest, thus, I learned a great deal about this Native American rite of passage. 

In some North and South American tribes, nearly all young people engage in some form of a vision quest as a ritual that marks the  transition from childhood to adulthood. The vision quest usually involves fasting alone in a secluded or sacred place in hopes of receiving a vision, perhaps from an animal or an ancestor. Vision quests emphasize the role of spirituality and contemplative thinking in indigenous cultures. As a rite of passage, a vision quest helps develop survival skills, gain maturity, and connect with nature and one’s self.

Similarly, Australian Aborigines have a long-standing rite of passage marking the transition from adolescence to adulthood for young men. The walkabout is a sacred experience and survival test where a young person leaves home on their own to demonstrate their ability to live off the land alone. It’s also a time for learning about spiritual guides. Upon successful completion, the young person, from as young as 10 to 15, is given all the rights and responsibilities of an adult. 

In Jewish tradition, families hold coming-of-age ceremonies for boys and girls at the age of 13. The Bar and Bat Mitzvahs recognize the time when the boy or girl becomes a Jewish adult. They are now responsible for their own actions and can decide for themselves how they would like to practice Judaism. 

Western culture has at least one similar version of these rites of passage: the debutante ball or coming out party. However, as this celebration has strictly been held for young women of aristocratic or upper-class backgrounds, I have no experience with it. Nevertheless, this is an elaborate, celebratory party with music and dancing, marking a young woman’s maturity and entering “society.” 

My parents hosted a backyard picnic to celebrate my graduation. Again, it felt more like a celebration of academic accomplishment than a formal transition into adulthood. When my own kid graduates in two years, I won’t be sending her on a vision quest or walkabout, but I am thinking of ways to mark the significance as a rite of passage into adulthood.

By Amy McGarry