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The Baccalaureate Tradition at RLA

With uncertain origins that date back to the Middle Ages as well as deep ties to religion, a baccalaureate service may seem old-fashioned, outdated and unnecessary. The truth is baccalaureate services remain a popular part of commencement exercises at many high schools and universities – although the service itself has changed significantly in the last few hundred years.

What hasn’t changed is that a baccalaureate service is a celebration of a senior graduating class with a speaker, often a community leader or priest, who praises the students’ achievements. It is often described as a more emotional, toned down part of commencement than the actual graduation ceremony itself – a time when the students are reflecting on what they’ve accomplished; that they are becoming adults; and that they will need the help of family, friends, their community and, often, their faith to successfully navigate the next journey of their lives.

This aspect of reflection is why the baccalaureate service is an integral part of Robert Land Academy’s Graduation Parade and Closing Ceremonies. Our students often have much to reflect on; many achievements and accomplishments to take pride in; a newfound maturity as they head into adulthood; and, of course, the support not only of family and friends but of the staff and students of the Academy.

At RLA the graduating students have an integral role in planning Graduation, especially the baccalaureate service. They meet with me early in the spring to discuss their ideas for their graduation, including choosing which member of the RLA staff they will ask to be the baccalaureate speaker. This decision is a major milestone in our students’ journeys and one they, and the staff, don’t take lightly. Studying at RLA is not always an easy experience and our students are asked to meet some pretty high expectations, both in and out of the classroom.

In choosing the Baccalaureate speaker the graduates are asked to nominate staff and speak to the reasons they believe they want that staff member to share a last piece of advice with them before the graduating class leaves the Academy.

I’ve mentioned this before, but one member of the Class of 2019 puts it best when asked if he likes being at RLA as his answer is always “I appreciate RLA.”

What that means is that when students arrive on campus they are usually not thrilled with the idea of a boarding school and being away from home and friends; that they don’t always enjoy the highly structured living and learning environment that the military theme here provides; and that they very likely have disagreed with one, or more, of the staff on one, or more, occasion; but that by the time they graduate, they appreciate what the school has taught them and they understand how much they’ve grown and accomplished while they have been here. And most, if not all, of the graduating class has come to realize how much they needed RLA.

Knowing this is how many of our graduates feel about the Academy, the staff are honoured when asked to be baccalaureate speaker because they understand exactly what that means to each and every student on campus.

Academic Officer Capt. Simmons was asked to be the Baccalaureate Speaker in 2017 and told me “it was obviously an honour to be nominated as the baccalaureate speaker, especially since I am surrounded by and work with an invested and dedicated staff”.

Capt. Simmons went on to say “being nominated by the graduating class also carries a sense of irony and even humour. Most students arrive at the Academy with a grandiose sense of self-importance and entitlement. They arrive impervious to instruction and deaf to advice. They believe work ethic is like an appendix – something they have heard about but not necessary to survival. They don’t need to hear wisdom because they already know everything. As they near graduation and the uncertainty of their futures, the process of electing a baccalaureate speaker forces them to maturely and willingly ask for guidance – something they would not have done in the past.”

This year, the graduation class asked Capt. Simmons to be their baccalaureate speaker because they consider him a mentor and role model.

It was a tough decision for these young to make, but they did so maturely and respectfully. From the numerous names put forward the boys whittled the list down to three and then struggled to choose just one, agreeing they all respected all three staff members and considered all of them role models. During the discussion the students referred to Capt. Simmons’ teaching style, noting he didn’t lecture but taught to them and that in one-on-one conversations Capt. Simmons always tailored his comments to the individual student.  The students told me they believe he cares about them.

I look forward to hearing what Capt. Simmons shares with the graduating students, and their parents, at the Graduate Dinner on June 14.

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