150th Anniversary and an Amazing Diploma Tradition at Gallaudet University

One of the earliest graduate's diploma signed by President Ulysses S. Grant
One of the earliest graduate's diploma signed by President Ulysses S. Grant
There are a couple of hefty milestones being celebrated this year at Gallaudet University in Washington D.C., plus an awesome tradition continues regarding the University’s diplomas. (Guess who signs them?)

Normally, diplomas are signed by a college president, chair of the board of trustees, and possibly a dean or department head. These documents are official, important, and represent a great accomplishment, make no mistake. So, the answer to the question of who signs Gallaudet University’s diplomas is totally unexpected unless you are a graduate of the university or know someone who has graduated.

: Besides signatures from the Gallaudet University president(s), there’s also the signature of the President of the United States! Incredible!
This custom started way back in June 1869 when the first graduation took place at Gallaudet. Ulysses S. Grant, then President of the United States, signed the diplomas for three male students who were the first Gallaudet graduates. The President’s signature is at the bottom portion of the diploma above the school’s seal.

One of the earliest graduates was John Burton Hotchkiss. A close up image of his diploma is on Gallaudet’s site.

Since the time of Ulysses S. Grant, Gallaudet diplomas have been signed by the presiding President of this country.   

“Gallaudet University holds the distinction of being the only university in the country where diplomas are signed by the sitting U.S. President,” said Michael Olson, interim director of the Gallaudet University Library Deaf Collections and Archives.

According to the school’s website, Gallaudet University, “the world's only university with programs and services specifically designed to accommodate deaf and hard of hearing students, was established in 1864 by an Act of Congress, and its charter was signed by President Abraham Lincoln.” 

The 144th commencement of the university was held on May 16, 2014, and celebrated with dance, music, the beating of drums, the procession of the graduates, and speeches with words of congratulations. The excitement of family and friends was apparent with hand waves and big smiles to the graduates. It’s also the sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) of the founding of the school. 

Mr. Olson commented, “the university recently found out that there were no graduation ceremonies in the years of 1871 and 1891 because there were no graduating seniors. So that means that the graduating Class of 2014 marked the 144th Commencement Ceremony.”

For the past several years, leading up to its 150th anniversary, Gallaudet has been collecting  actual graduate and undergraduate diplomas signed by each of the Presidents (starting with the signature of Ulysses S. Grant and continuing to President Barack Obama’s signature) for each year that degrees were presented.   The originals of all the diplomas are being kept in the Gallaudet Archives.  Quite an array of diplomas have been collected already.

“We have received many diploma donations since our initiative began in 2012,” said Mr. Olson, “and we invite all alumni to give their diplomas back to their alma mater in honor of our 150th anniversary.”

There’s a way to donate your Gallaudet University diploma.  Contact Kaitlin Luna, coordinator of media and public relations, at kaitlin.luna@gallaudet.edu or 202-651-5505.  All images scans of diplomas and images of Gallaudet alumni are courtesy Gallaudet Archives unless otherwise indicated [on the Gallaudet site].

How lucky for Church Hill Classics in Monroe, Connecticut, to partner with the Bison Shop, the official retailer at the University, and to create museum quality, USA-made diploma frames for their graduates and families. It’s quite extraordinary to come across all this exciting information about Gallaudet University’s historic diplomas and the commitment and tradition of this dynamic institution!

by Lauren Miller


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