Graduation in a country known for its parties

This past weekend I went to a Brazilian graduation. And by US standards, it was wild.

The lucky graduate was Giovanna, my host mom’s daughter, who just finished her bachelor’s degree at a law school in Porto Alegre. Because the campus consists of like three floors in an office building, the graduation was held in a nice theater at a mall—and this ceremony seemed intent on using every special effect the theater had at its disposal.

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On a set level, this manifested itself as crystal-looking chandeliers and gleaming silver-backed chairs on which the 49 graduates sat. Across the stage were about a dozen faculty sitting behind a long table that was covered in some sort of ivy or leaves. This table also had the Portuguese word for “law” spelled out across it in big white cursive letters that recalled a Disneyland shrub.

Meanwhile, during the distribution of diplomas, the sound system got a full workout. Each graduate had apparently gotten to choose the song that would play while they walked to receive their diploma. Selections ranged from “All Star” and a funk remix of “Sweet Dreams” to a trifecta of “The Final Countdown,” “Eye of the Tiger,” and the Rocky theme. This song would start after the graduate’s name was called, pause while the degree was conferred, and resume as the graduate returned to their seat.

Watching the graduates get their diplomas was a bit like watching contestants get called down on The Price is Right. When their names were called, graduates would thrust their arms into the air or cheer or group-jump-hug with nearby friends. Some would wave or strike a pose as they crossed the stage, capitalizing on what my host mom referred to as their five minutes of fame. It 100% felt performative (and thus more than a little inauthentic), but it also felt like I was watching an actual celebration and not just a perfunctory parade of graduates across the stage.

This was probably the highlight of the graduation, but the ceremony went on for another hour and a half. Barbara and I had arrived an hour late (thanks to a late start from Caxias, awful weather en route to Porto Alegre, GPS malfunctions while trying to find our hotel, and Uber cancellations before what turned out to be a forty-five-minute ride through rush-hour traffic), but we still ended up sitting in the theater for over two hours. That was thanks to a half-dozen (fairly long, fairly rote) speeches, which eventually drove some of our seatmates to start clapping loudly any time the last speaker paused, like they were trying to urge him off the stage.

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A plaque at UCS with examples of typical pirate-like graduation get-up

Following the ceremony was a reception that honestly made me feel like I was celebrating a wedding. It was in a hall Giovanna had split with a friend, complete with table assignments and fancy flower arrangements and a fruit-filled open bar. (Barbara and I had also received physical invitations that rivaled a wedding’s, and Giovanna had set up a personalized website for her graduation that included a wish list.) Giovanna and her classmate even made their own big entrance set to music, and of course there was a DJ and a dance floor—which Giovanna, her dad, and some of her friends started doing multiple tequila shots on sometime around 1:30 in the morning.

The menu indicated that the night would end with a hot dog “dawn snack,” but thankfully Elaine didn’t want to stay that long, and we were back at the hotel by three. It was a super interesting night—pretty typical in terms of both ceremony and celebration, from what different people told me. In the lead-up to the graduation, I was surprised by how big of a deal graduations seem to be here. I was honestly a little confused until I remarked about it to my program coordinator, who reminded me that most of these students are the first in their families to graduate. I still wouldn’t want such a celebration for myself, but at least I can better understand why others might.

In any case, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to experience a Brazilian graduation like this. Congratulations to Giovanna, and best of luck on her paths ahead!

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