Celebrating identity: Six cultural commencements graduates can attend 

Sophie Kelley, Victoria Howland, Lexy Solomon and Cameron Bones

Pomp, circumstance, repeat. As graduation approaches, Cal Poly students have the opportunity to participate in more than just college-wide and major ceremonies. There are six cultural commencement ceremonies available to students.

June 16 | 5 to 7:30 p.m. | Chumash Auditorium

Twenty-three years of celebration, and it’s still always centered around the food.

The annual Asian-Pacific Islander (API) cultural commencement is a student-organized celebration tailored to congratulate Cal Poly graduates who affiliate with Asian-Pacific Islander heritage. Focused primarily around a keynote speaker and the individual recognition of student graduates, the ceremony has grown to honor more than 100 potential participants.

API adviser Andrene Kaiwi-Lenting said that while the ceremony serves to intimately commemorate graduates, the additional incorporation of musical performances adds originality to the celebration.

“Students are pretty talented, so we’ll have an entertainment act by one of the [student] groups that is traditionally performing throughout the year,” Director of New Student and Transition Programs Kaiwi-Lenting said. “We have great students that are talented in singing and musically performing.”

Kaiwi-Lenting said the API ceremony allows participants to share the graduating experience with friends in different majors who they have grown close with during their time at Cal Poly. 

A student’s perspective

When mechanical engineering senior Maya Manzano was in elementary school, she was accidentally placed in the boys division for karate. Competing on an all boys team was frightening for Manzano at first. However, after winning a sparring match, Manzano felt empowered. According to Manzano, this experience gave her the ability to “hold her own” and not be threatened by gender stereotypes. Manzano has found this helpful in a major that is predominantly male.

Manzano decided to commit to Cal Poly after attending PolyCultural Weekend when she was a senior in high school. Wanting to provide a welcoming experience to potential Cal Poly students, Manzano was involved in PolyCultural Weekend for the past four years. During her freshman year, Manzano joined Pilipino Cultural Exchange (PCE) because she wanted to get to know more students that share a similar heritage and ethnic background.

Manzano is in the interview process for a full-time position in Hollister, California. She is hoping to hear back soon.

“I think it’s nice that the commencements recognize, not the struggles that you went through, but a lot more of the hard work that maybe minority students have to endure to make it to graduation,” Manzano said.  

June 18 | 2 to 6 p.m. | Chumash Auditorium

The melody of mariachi music will play in the background. Each of the 45 graduates will be represented with a personalized photo centerpiece on their individual table. Families will be ushered to their seats to partake in the festive celebration of their graduate.

Welcome to the Cal Poly Chicano-Latino cultural commencement.

Every year since 1978, the Movimento Estudiantil Xicano de Aztlán (MEXA) has hosted a bilingual cultural commencement ceremony to honor Cal Poly students of Chicano-Latino heritage. Initially a student-run event, the ceremony called for graduates to organize multiple fundraisers throughout the year in order to gather sufficient funds. Now, the ceremony is funded by faculty and staff associations, as well as the President’s Office.

Chicano-Latino cultural commencement co-adviser Delfina Medina-Maloney said the ceremony not only celebrates graduates and their cultural identity, but it tilts a strong focus on the importance of family. Medina-Maloney is a first-generation Cal Poly alumna, whose parents watched her department graduation without being able to fully understand what was being said.

“I didn’t participate in Chicano commencement, and I think [my parents] would have enjoyed it. There’s a lot of words and a lot of speeches; they didn’t understand it, they didn’t get to hear it in their own language,” Medina-Maloney said. “To them it was like something you had to do to get out of the way to find a job. To me, it was more like a part of my life, and they didn’t get that.”

With community being one of the core values behind the Chicano-Latino cultural commencement ceremony, graduates are welcome to invite their entire families to partake in the ceremony. Graduates even have the choice to walk with one or both of their parents to receive their certificate.

Watch the video below to hear more from the Latino-Chicano cultural commencement advisers about why they think this ceremony values inclusivity of graduates and their extended loved ones.

A student’s perspective

When psychology senior Yvette Solano met Cal Poly psychology alumna Amy Gonzalez, she did not expect her “Big” to be the most influential person she would meet at Cal Poly. Gonzalez’s passion for activism, inclusivity and social justice inspired Solano. Solano said Gonzalez has shaped her perspective on herself and others.

Solano is a member of Lambda Sigma Gamma, a multicultural sorority on campus. She will be participating in the Chicano-Latino commencement ceremony, and will be the first in her family to attain a bachelor’s degree at a four-year university. Within the past four years, Solano has been an Orientation for United Raza (OUR) leader and a speaker in Los Monólogos de la Vagina and Cal Poly’s Original Woman’s Narrative (OWN).

Solano will be taking a full-time position with the San Luis Obispo District Attorney Office where she will be pursuing her passion for human rights.

“I’m really excited to have a big celebration,” Solano said.

June 16 | 6 to 8 p.m. | Spanos Theater

The whole point is to be like, ‘Look you made it, come hang out with us,’ ” Black cultural commencement adviser Steve Ross said.

Now in its 29th year of celebration, the annual Black cultural commencement ceremony welcomes any and all students of color to participate in the honoring of affiliated, graduating seniors. African drummers, a community prayer and a guest speaker weave the ceremony together, as well as the close-knit feelings of unity amongst graduates, faculty and family observers.

Ross said the ceremony typically ranges from 18 to 26 graduates.

“That sort of speaks to the specialness of it,” Ross said. “Part of it is that the numbers just aren’t there. When you have thousands of students who graduate every year, and we can only find 20 on average for a black graduation, that in itself sort of speaks to a systematic problem.”

The traditional diploma walk is personalized by allowing graduates to choose the song they want to walk out to. Ross said graduates usually pick the “latest and greatest” for their move across the stage to receive their diplomas.

Aside from upbeat music and the communal atmosphere, Ross said the simple things are what allow for the ceremony to imprint on graduates.

“It’s the little extra things like seeing a crowd of people who look like you. If you can’t get enough tickets to the main graduation, there’s another opportunity,” Ross said. “Or being a first time college graduate and wanting to celebrate their culture.”

A student’s perspective

In 2016, Kevin Porche traveled to Cuba with the Black Student Union (BSU) where he was exposed to a culture based off love and acceptance. This trip inspired Porche to enlighten others on the importance of diversity and inclusivity.

“Maybe we don’t have to be yelling at people, you can really change things by the little personal interactions that we have on a day-to-day basis,” Porche said.

Porche graduated with a bachelor’s degree in accounting in 2016. When Porche attended Cal Poly, he was a member of the football team and was involved in National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) and POLY REPS. Porche was, and still is, a member of the Black Student Union. Joining the Black Student Union has given Porche the confidence and comfort to embrace his culture and ethnicity on campus, and encourage other BSU students to do the same.

“Being a part of BSU allowed me to see the fear of other black students to step out and be themselves,” Porche said. “I think I got a chance to help a few people grow and be comfortable of themselves on campus, and I’m really proud of that.”

Porche is working in San Luis Obispo as the CFO and brand ambassador at Reduce. Reuse. Grow., and will be participating in this year’s Black cultural commencement ceremony.  

“It’s important to me because the university graduation and even the business graduation is really, really big, and it’s not very personal. It’s hot and sweaty and uncomfortable,” Porche said. “But this gives my family a chance, and my friends a chance, to really just come together and celebrate what we did together.”

June 10

The numbers are growing, and the Cal Poly queer community couldn’t be more excited.

What started as a five-student graduation ceremony in 2008 has now grown to honor 21 graduates who identify as lesbian, gay, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex or asexual (LGBTQIA). The Lavender cultural commencement ceremony allows for LGBTQIA-identified Cal Poly students to participate in a celebration that honors their personal growth, self acceptance and intersectionality efforts.

Industrial engineering graduate student and co-coordinator Jennifer Caudillo works to plan the ceremony and annual awards. Caudillo said that one of the most unique aspects of the ceremony is the portion where a family member or close friend of the graduates gives a two-to-four- minute speech about their graduate.

“A lot of the speeches are really overwhelming. [They] talk about the growth of the graduate throughout their time here,” Caudillo said. “A lot of the times they mention like ‘Oh, when [graduate] came to Cal Poly they were shy and scared, and now they’ve grown and make an impact and they’re actually involved in the Pride Center. It’s really impactful seeing how a friend sees you grow.”

In addition to a personalized speech, certain graduates are selected for specific awards. Click the video below to hear Caudillo share more about how LGBTQIA students are honored for their inclusivity efforts.

June 9

Welcome to the American Indian and Indigenous cultural commencement ceremony, an annual Cal Poly celebration tailored to honor graduating students who identify with American Indian and Indigenous heritage.

Wind glides through the spring air. The sound of healing drum thuds can be heard in the close distance. Rows of folding chairs are aligned throughout the Cal Poly Botanical Garden as graduates begin to fill the outdoor arena.

American Indian and Indigenous cultural commencement chair Jenell Navarro said the ceremony includes sacred traditions, such as blanketing students and individual student blessings performed by an elder.

“It’s very spiritually uplifting for me,” Navarro said. “It’s a way to form community and gather together as indigenous people. We don’t have a lot of opportunities to do that [at Cal Poly], so I do really cherish it.”

The ceremony honors spiritual values of American Indian and Indigenous culture, an aspect of the ceremony that makes it intimate and memorable for graduates.

June 16 | 6 to 8 p.m. | Baker Science Lawn

It’s celebrating its second birthday, as well as the 12 honorable graduating seniors.

The Middle Eastern cultural commencement ceremony started last year as an effort to represent graduating students in the Middle Eastern community. This year, 12 graduates will be celebrated in the newborn ceremony.

Middle Eastern cultural commencement coordinator and adviser for the Iranian Student Cultural Organization (ISCO) Christina Kaviani said students came to her wanting to push awareness for other students that were affiliated with Middle Eastern culture.

“The university was really supportive,” Kaviani said. “It really just takes a staff member to lead the charge, and I was willing to do that.”

This year’s ceremony will include Middle Eastern food and tea, a poetry reading, music and a keynote speaker.

“When you’re a student, you feel at home at graduation when there’s the music of your culture or the food or the tea,” Kaviani said. “Being able to have a venue where people can come together and experience that together is super important and a nice way to end your college experience.”  

A student’s perspective

For graphic communication senior Zia Absar, joining Muslim Student Association (MSA) was the most impactful decision she made at Cal Poly. Absar said she did not consider Cal Poly a “home” until she found a community of students within her culture.

“Through MSA, I found some of my best friends and it really helped me grow and understand who I am as a person, who I am as a Muslim and as a Pakistani woman who is born and raised in America,” Absar said.

Aside from the Muslim Student Association, Absar was part of the Inter Housing Council (IHC) and was a resident adviser. Absar’s involvement at the graphic communication department office came to a stop in Fall 2016 because of her internship with Apple.

After graduation, Absar will be working on Apple’s Packaging Operations and Hardware Graphics team.

“I actually attended it last year because a much of my friends in the Muslim Student Association were apart of it so it was really cool because it was the first time the Middle Eastern commencement was a thing,” Absar said. “It was really exciting because all of my friends just had a commencement for themselves.”

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