For grads, the holidays are a matter of degree Dec. commencement exercises draw small crowd at College Park


COLLEGE PARK -- "Winter Wonderland" is not a song associated with university commencement ceremonies, but that was one of the tunes the University of Maryland's Symphonic Wind Ensemble played yesterday as family and friends filed into Cole Field House to await the procession of the capped and gowned.

The occasion was the December version of graduation. Similar ceremonies were being held at Towson, Bowie State and Salisbury State universities. Frostburg State held one Friday; students at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County graduate tomorrow.

On paper, these wintertime commencements are nearly the equal of the traditional springtime event -- the 4,517 people eligible to get degrees at College Park yesterday were only 800 fewer than those who graduated in May.

That's on paper.

In reality, the December commencement is a more relaxed affair -- no tickets needed to get in, plenty of empty seats, a relative handful of faculty interrupting holiday shopping to don ceremonial robes for the procession.

"It bothers my family more than it bothers me," Barbara Finnin, 23, said of her December graduation.

Finnin, like many, was getting her degree a semester late -- in her case because of credits lost when she transferred from West Chester State near her home in Philadelphia.

Her fellow anthropology major, Katalin Koda, 22, said the timing of her extra-semester graduation didn't matter. "I'm just happy. The date doesn't make a scintilla of difference."

Finnin and Koda were among the crowd of graduates assembling in the small gym in the back of Cole Field House, awaiting their cue to walk into the main arena, to be on the receiving end of camera flashes, waves and the formal bestowal of degrees.

"Of course it would be nice to have the traditional ceremony like we had in high school," said Ben Crosby, 22, of Hereford, whose graduation was delayed a semester when he decided to add a business minor to his economics major.

"But the fact is, this is not high school," he said. "We're getting that piece of paper today. We've gotten our education, and we've secured our future. That's what's important."

Michael Nurse, a tight end on the varsity football team who took an extra semester for his degree in government and politics, also would have preferred a May date.

"In the middle of the year, you have more people, more characters, more of everything," he said. "With Christmas and New Year's, this is like an overload."

But Curtis Taylor, a 22-year-old from Clinton, said he preferred this arrangement. "You get Christmas gifts and graduation gifts all together. And you start up a new year real soon. That makes it a good time to be starting out."

For Stefan Gagne, getting his degree in December meant that he got to graduate on his 23rd birthday.

"I'm just happy to be graduating," he said. "This is the culmination of everything I have ever done in education."

Amy Schlom was one of the few receiving her degree a semester early. The student speaker at commencement, she got most of her required courses out of the way early when she thought she was going to be an architecture major and then finished with a 4.0 average when she switched to marketing.

"I stayed as long as I could, taking fun courses," she said. "I really like this ceremony. It's smaller, so it's like an intimate gathering of students."

School officials never know how many will attend the universitywide ceremony, which precedes commencements held by the 13 individual institutions. The floor of the field house held 1,300 seats for students and faculty.

At least a third of the seats remained empty. Many of those graduating finished their work in August -- too late for the May event -- and did not return for the ceremony.

Twice as many seats are available in May, and that's often not enough -- students and faculty spill into the stands. Graduates are limited to four tickets each for their families, and the field house is packed to the rafters if the speaker is a big name, such as Hillary Rodham Clinton who appeared in May.

Yesterday, Air Force Capt. Scott F. O'Grady spoke. He has no connection to Maryland, but he held the crowd spellbound with an at-times humorous description of the six days he spent hiding for his life after he was shot down in Bosnia in 1995.

"I'm not a hero," he said. "All I did was survive for six days. The heroes were those 19-year-old Marines who came on that helicopter to help me. So I challenge everybody here to become a hero. Go out and do something to help somebody."

Pub Date: 12/21/98

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