Commencement ceremonies have been a part of institutional tradition since the earliest years of the University of Illinois, known as Illinois Industrial University until 1885. Though students received certificates of completion rather than degrees until 1878, the University still recognized students who successfully completed the courses required for their chosen program.
As President Corbally declared in his Commencement address to the class of 1979,
…The quality of the degree which you will receive today is special—special because it has been awarded to you by one of the great universities of the world. That special quality is a fragile thing—it has been earned and nurtured for over a hundred years since the University was founded as the Illinois Industrial University on a swampy site on the outskirts of Urbana. That special quality has survived wars, depressions, disorders, and a variety of other problems and crises, and is now the hallmark of a university with three main campuses and with programs throughout the State of Illinois and, indeed, throughout the world.
Thousands of students over the years are tied together through the University and its Commencement traditions: Frances Adelia Potter and Henry Sheldon Reynolds, a couple who met at University and married within a day of their mutual graduation in 1874; Chung Sul Youn, a 1955 graduate who was the first woman in more than 30 years to major in chemical engineering; and fourth generation Illini George E. Smith Jr., the great-grandson, grandson, and son of Illinois graduates and recipient of his degree in 1960.
Influential figures from all walks of life addressed graduating classes with observations, commentary, and life advice, including First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton (1994), noted scientist Carl Sagan (1990), Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson (1950), and the most recent speaker and Illinois alumnus, billionaire entrepreneur Shahid Khan.
Few alumni can recall the speaker, or the contents of the address, ten years after their Commencement. Nonetheless, each year more students achieve alumni status and contribute to University Commencement traditions. In his 1995 address, President Stanley O. Ikenberry concluded with this exhortation:
As you leave us, you carry with you an obligation to make sure that future generations—your brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, your neighbors—enjoy the same wonderful opportunity to learn and grow. Pause one more time at the Alma Mater and read the inscription: “To the Happy Children of the Future, Those of the Past Send Greetings.” That is the intergenerational promise. Commit today to keep it. Come back; stay connected; help us build even more opportunity and hope for future generations.
To learn more about the history of Commencement at the University of Illinois, please visit the exhibit located outside the Archives hallway in the basement of the Main Library.