Without Cap or Gown

Osmel Almaguer

Street scene in Old Havana.

My university graduation ceremony was a bittersweet affair.  On the one hand, this was the moment I’d been awaiting for many years.  It was the event in which my new status within society would become official.

Otherwise, it’s surprising how people —regardless of how educated they may be— look at you out of the corner of their eye when you tell them you’re not a graduate.  Sure, this doesn’t happen everywhere, but it does in fact occur when your looking for a job and when making relationships in the intellectual world.

For that reason I felt satisfied, but on the other hand I was still uncomfortable when I had to borrow all the required regalia because I didn’t have the money to buy my own.

After my thesis was approved, I began to become concerned with the issue of dress.  Few Cubans have a suit or tie.  This type of clothing is very not very functional on the island due to the heat here.  In addition, it’s quite expensive.  For that reason, these have been relegated to solemn ceremonies and functions of protocol.

However, these ceremonies are not for everybody; rather, they’re exclusive to a certain layer of society: TV announcers, diplomats, political leaders, artists, musicians, sportsmen, businesspeople, etc.  I don’t belong to any of those circles, which is why it’s wouldn’t make sense for me to buy a suit for the rare occasion in which it might be needed.

Nor do I own any pretty or new shirts, or expensive pants or shiny shoes.  My attire has been reduced to three or four changes of clothes for work.

I’ve always seen graduates in American movies wearing the traditional cap and gown, though I’m sure they don’t have to go to as much trouble to get these.

Here, neither the gown nor the cap is used.  As I mentioned, people attend the ceremony wearing the clothes they have, but these have to be elegant, at least if you don’t want to be looked down on by others.

To get these clothes I had to save up for a whole month.  But with only a week before the ceremony, I had saved up only 200 regular Cuban pesos [about $10 USD], which wouldn’t even get me a shirt.  Finally, I decided to accept my neighbor’s offer to loan me some shoes, as well as my cousin’s suggestion that I use the clothes he wore when he graduated.

Since the clothes weren’t my size, I felt a bit uncomfortable.  I had the feeling that everybody was looking at me realizing that these weren’t mine.  It was hot and there were many unknown people around me, because in the Distance Education program, almost no one knows each other.  I was only familiar with a few students in my program.  To tell the truth, however, they —along with family— made me feel better.

The solemnness of the ceremony seemed to erase from my memory the bad times that I had experienced during my studies (like the time that, after having been told I had passed a certain exam, a month later they told me that I had gotten a D, and that I had no right to contest it). But I also had happy moments; in fact, each class I passed was the motive for a great deal of happiness, because I felt I had made another solid step toward my goal.

I have no memory in the form of photos or videos of the ceremony.  I felt ridiculous for being one of the few people who didn’t have any type of camera.  There were some people who seemed to be showing off their clothes and their technological gadgetry.  People in my program were more modest, more natural, but those with majors like law or economics seemed more like they were parading on a catwalk.

Job opportunities connected to my degree, socio-cultural studies, are modest for the most part.  The prospects of a lawyer or an economist are much more tempting economically.  Maybe this was why they were the ones who wanted most to get attention?  For me, the most important thing was the A that I got on my senior project, and the knowledge that I had finally obtained my degree.