For most students, tossing their caps into the air at the end of commencement culminates their four years at USC.
But for some, it only marks the end to a semester.
Most of the students who will be ordering class rings and learning about commencement at this week’s Grad Fair are in their eighth semester — seniors graduating after four years.
Not every senior, however, follows a stringent four-year path to graduation. There are a handful of students who graduate in the fall semester, either to finish degree requirements or to prepare for jobs or graduate school.
“I had this drive to prove that I could work,” said Katy Reid, a fall 2009 graduate with a bachelor of arts in theatre, who graduated a semester early. “For me, graduating was a part of getting out in the real world.”
According to Ray Gonzales, senior director of research and reporting for the Office of Academic Records and Registrar, there have historically been about 900 fall graduates each December at USC. Last fall, that number declined slightly, but it has been increasing overall in the past few years.
Gene Bickers, vice provost for undergraduate programs, said a growing number of fall graduates are students who are staying an extra semester rather than leaving a semester early.
“The number of December grads has increased marginally over the past several years, but there has been no large-scale trend,” Bickers wrote in an e-mail. “More students graduate late than early, largely because they are pursuing multiple majors or minors, or because they have made a late change of major.”
Students who finish their degrees in the fall semester are given a fall conferral date but are treated almost identically to spring graduates.
Any student who graduates in the fall semester will still be recognized in the spring commencement booklet of his class year, which includes the prior fall.
Since USC only offers one commencement ceremony, fall graduates are allowed to walk in the graduation ceremony prior to their graduation or in the spring ceremony after they receive their degrees.
“I’m going to walk with the class of 2010 because I started with them,” said Ashley Zimmerman, a fall 2009 graduate with a bachelor of arts in broadcast journalism. “I want to end my college career with the same friendships I created freshman year.”
For some students, the commencement ceremony is a time to share their accomplishments with their family members.
“I’ll be at the ceremony, but my decision could have gone either way. It’s a whole family thing, and it’s for my parents as much as for me,” said Mike Joyce, a fall 2009 graduate with a bachelor of arts in broadcast journalism.
Nelson Shirota, student services manager, said typically many fall graduates attend the ceremony unless circumstances preclude them from being in Los Angeles.
“We have thousands of participants, and they are the ones who want to show up to display all of their hard work,” Shirota said.
Though fall graduates are given equal opportunities to participate in commencement activities, including the Baccalaureate Ceremony and the Baccalaureate Dinner, some fall graduates said they feel they are missing out on parts of the graduation experience.
“I live with 10 seniors who are all in their second semester. They’re going through this stage where they feel liberated, but they also have a fear of what’s to come. But I went through that by myself,” Reid said.
Zimmerman, too, said she feels slightly disconnected from the graduation experience.
“I’m missing out on the last time to go to [Traditions, an on-campus bar], my last invite and my last class. My last class was a very individual experience because everyone else still had another semester. It was more of a surreal experience for me,” she said.
Though early or late graduates might miss out on some of the traditions, Bickers said that academically there is no disadvantage.
“It depends on the student, but I would not say that most December graduates miss out on opportunities by finishing early,” Bickers wrote. “They are still eligible for university honors, including the Renaissance, Discovery and Global Scholars programs. There is no single answer to whether early graduation is a good thing — it really depends on individual circumstances.”
Although Reid and Zimmerman might have some qualms with graduating early, both feel that it was the right decision academically and financially.
Casey Patrick, a fall 2009 graduate who received her bachelor of arts in business administration, recognized that if she had remained at USC for her spring semester, she would have remained in her comfort zone.
“It would have been really easy for me to stay [at USC]. But [leaving USC] is more of a challenge. In some ways, it is kind of harder, and now I’ve just been thrown into the real world,” she said.