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A Mace, Mortal Kombat and a History-Making Grad: Six Things to Know About Commencement

In a crowd of graduates at Spanos Stadium, a young woman in a green commencement gown and purple lei touches her mortarboard as green and gold confetti sail through the air
Written By Jay Thompson, Gabby Ferreira and Larry Peña

This weekend, hundreds of new Cal Poly graduates will walk across the stage at Spanos Stadium and on to the next chapter of their lives.  

It’s a joyous occasion full of pomp and circumstance — and some interesting history. Here are six fun facts about commencement. 


Left, a vintage photo of a professor in academic regalia holding a long rod tipped with wire spines. Right, a modern photo of a professor in regalia placing an ornate wood and metal club on a podium
Left: A professor holds the original Cal Poly mace, circa 1968. University Archives. Right: Professor Gary Laver places the modern mace on the podium at the 2015 commencement ceremony. Photo by Chris Leschinsky.

The Mace 

During the opening academic procession, ahead of the throng of college banners and robed dignitaries, you’ll spy someone carrying a club-like artifact that would look more at home in a museum. It’s a ceremonial mace: a symbol of authority, university bona fides and gravitas.  

Cal Poly has had two maces over the last 116 years. The first one was designed by faculty member Thomas Johnston, built by the College of Engineering’s Manufacturing Processes Department and used in commencements from 1968 to 2000. It now lives in University Archives, where many first-time visitors look and wonder at what Kennedy Library archivist Laura Sorvetti describes as that “interesting-shaped item.” Common guesses include giant head massager and musical device, she said.  

Cal Poly Professor Crissa Hewitt, now an emeritus professor, was selected to create “a more contemporary design” for the university’s centennial in 2001, which is the mace still used today. 

Hewitt’s mace features a stylized club, roughly the shape of a big-barrel T-ball bat, made of sterling silver, gold, teak and rosewood. The Cal Poly colors of green and gold are also part of the mace, with green malachite chip inlays in the handle and a cast gold flame element at the top. 

A student in a commencement gown shakes hands with president Jeffrey Armstrong, in academic regalia
A student shares her big moment with President Armstrong at last year's commencement ceremony. Photo by Joe Johnston.

The Voices Behind the Names 

In 2016, two trained, professional name readers were added to the commencement ceremony to ensure that each graduate’s name is heard loudly and proudly. 

David Markus, a prolific voice actor since he was a teenager, has been a reader at Cal Poly for six years. He is an in-demand voice performer for commercials and podcasts as well as acting roles in television series, video games and animation. 

On the other side of the stage is Jamieson Price, an actor who’s worked on stage, screen and microphone. He began announcing the names of graduates at Cal State Long Beach commencement ceremonies over 20 years ago, and now serves Chapman University and Cal Poly during graduation season.  

Price has appeared in films like “The Patriot” and “The Secret Kingdom,” and on TV in “Without a Trace,” “Westworld,” “Frasier.” His voice is especially iconic for video game fans: He was the announcer in the game Mortal Kombat, delivering the brutal command, “Finish him!” 

Price takes his work as a name reader seriously, knowing that every name belongs to an individual and is special. A few years ago his daughter graduated from Long Beach State, and he was able to read her name as she glided across the stage. 

“It’s a very proud moment,” he said. “It’s a real moment of accomplishment and achievement for the students and a rite of passage in some ways. They enter college still as kids, kind of, and they come out of it like you are in the real world now. And it’s an exciting thing to have your name said like that.” 

The Tassel is Worth the Hassle 

In 1968, controversy broke out ahead of commencement, as faculty members begged then-president Robert E. Kennedy to do something about a serious issue of student decorum: decorations on their mortarboard caps. 

To alleviate the crisis, Kennedy proposed official color-coded tassels to give the students some individuality based on their majors — a tradition that lives on to this day, even though decorations are no longer frowned upon. Here’s a guide to the meanings behind the rainbow of tassels you’ll see at this year’s commencement ceremony. 

The top of a student's mortarboard, decorated with the word "Finally," a variety of sea animals, and a yellow tassel
A marine sciences student with a golden yellow tassel and a once-controversial mortarboard cap. Photo by Joe Johnston.

Maize – All College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences degrees 

Blue-Violet – Architecture 

Orange — Architectural Engineering 

Brown — All other architecture degrees 

Sapphire Blue — Industrial Technology 

Drab — All other Orfalea College of Business degrees 

Orange — All College of Engineering degrees 

White — All College of Liberal Arts degrees, Extended Education 

Light Blue — Master of Arts in Education 

Sage Green — Kinesiology 

Golden Yellow — All other College of Science and Math degrees 

One more tassel tip: Bachelor’s candidates wear tassels on right side of their caps until their degrees are conferred, then move to the left; graduate students wear them on the left from the beginning. 


A page from a vintage Cal Poly yearbook diplaying the portraits of 8 graduates from the class of 1906.
The eight members of the class of 1906. Clockwise from top: Henry Wade, Katherine Twombly, Gus Wade, Irene Righetti, H. Floyd Tont, Lillian Fox, Herbert Cox and Laura Righetti.

The Fateful Eight 

Though Cal Poly was founded in 1901, the first graduation ceremony was held June 15, 1906, just three years after classes started at the polytechnic vocational school — not a college or university then. Just eight students — an even match of girls and boys — made up the Class of 1906.  

That first class successfully completed the Agriculture, Mechanics, and Household Arts programs — the only programs offered at the time. The three main campus buildings they knew no longer exist: the original main administration building and boys’ dormitory were leveled in the early 1940s to make room for a modern administration building and clock tower, while the Science Building was demolished in 1974 to create space for the Architecture Building. 

Those eight grads left behind two gifts: a “class tree,” a valley oak that still stands tall on California Boulevard; and the commemorative spade they used to plant it that in turn was used for decades of class tree plantings, and now lives in University Archives. The students of 1906 penned a history of their class, left a class will and offered a class prophecy. See more in the Polytechnic Journal, via University Archives

A portrait of a young man in a beard, turban and collared shirt
Karan Singh, one of Cal Poly's youngest graduates ever.

Graduating Early...Really Early

One of the youngest graduates in Cal Poly’s history will walk this weekend. Electrical engineering major Karan Singh was a 15-year-old Cal Poly freshman in the fall of 2019, a school year interrupted by COVID. 

“Adjusting to college was a bit odd for me,” he said. “As soon as I was getting settled into college in my second quarter, everything locked down and gave me another environment to adjust to. Regardless, I just did my best to learn and grow as much as I could from every experience.” 

On his speed run through the Learn by Doing campus, Singh took 20 units or more per quarter three times over his dozen quarters and hit the maximum of 22 in the spring of 2021. 

Singh’s advice to incoming students younger than the norm: “Enjoy your time in college and at Cal Poly. There’s a plethora of events and activities to take part in, and they’re easy to discount when you’re primarily focused on your degree.” 

By the Numbers 

The 2022 commencement celebration will be held at 8:30 a.m., 12:30 and 4:30 p.m. each weekend day in Spanos Stadium on June 11-12. An estimated 50,000 guests are expected throughout the weekend. Nearly 5,500 Cal Poly students are eligible to graduate, and organizers expect 90% of them to attend. 

The College of Engineering will have the largest number of total undergraduate and graduate students at commencement, while business administration in the Orfalea College of Business is the largest program. The College of Architecture and Environmental Design, while the smallest college at commencement, nevertheless has two of this year’s 10 most popular programs. 


Colleges by Total Graduates 

1. College of Engineering: 1579 

2. Orfalea College of Business: 955 

3. College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences: 947 

4. College of Liberal Arts: 909 

5. College of Science and Mathematics: 663 

6. College of Architecture: 439 

A crowd of graduates fills the field at Spanos Stadium, while thousands of friends and family watch from the stands.
Graduates from last year's commencement ceremony at Spanos Stadium. Can you figure out what they studied based on their tassels? Photo by Joe Johnston.


Most Popular Undergraduate Degree

1. Business Administration (OCOB): 717 

2. Mechanical Engineering (CENG): 233 

3. Architecture (CAED): 167 

4. Computer Science (CENG): 167 

5. Electrical Engineering (CENG): 154 

6. Psychology (CLA): 151 

7. Animal Science (CAFES): 135 

8. Biological Sciences: (COSAM): 134 

9. Construction Management (CAED): 129 

10. Civil Engineering (CENG): 127 


Most Popular Graduate Degrees 

1. Civil and Environmental Engineering (CENG): 59 

2. Agricultural Education (CAFES): 55 

3. Business Analytics (OCOB): 53 

4. Biomedical Engineering (CENG): 51 

5. Electrical Engineering (CENG): 46 

6. Business Administration (OCOB): 45 

7. Mechanical Engineering (CENG): 44 

8. Computer Science (CENG): 38 

9. Fire Protection Engineering (CENG): 26 

10. Engineering Management (CENG): 25 


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