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Religion major reflects on liminal space at Class of 2020 commencement celebration

Shawna Morton delivers remarks at a lectern.

Shawna Morton ’20 delivered remarks to graduates and families at the in-person Class of 2020 commencement celebration on Saturday, May 22. Watch video of the remarks above. The text, as prepared for delivery, is below.

Good morning, I am so happy to be here at Transylvania with all of you again. I have been reflecting on what this place and what this education has meant to me since the abrupt ending to our college careers. Through my own lens as a religion major, I have been constantly reminded of the concept of rites of passage and liminal space.

In 1908, Arnold Van Gennep coined the term “liminality” or “liminal space.” Part of the definition very much pertains to this occasion. Gennep’s analysis explains the desire for celebration after a change of status for an individual or social group, or transitions in the passage of time. In doing so, he placed a particular emphasis on rites of passage, and claimed that “such rituals marking, helping, or celebrating individual or collective passages through the cycle of life or of nature exist in every culture.”

In order for the right of passage to be complete, we must pass through the “liminal space,” or the space in between. When Gennep refers to this middle stage he “implies an actual passing through the threshold that marks the boundary between two phases, and the term ‘liminality.’” Those passing through the space do not have a specific identity as they are not what they were before, and they are not the thing they will become quite yet.

Jean M. Auel, critically acclaimed author of the Earth’s Children series, provides a perfect example of the space in between.

She writes about a time 25-35,000 years ago. At a summer celebration, there is a group of females that have been isolated from the rest of the attending people. In this space and time, they are not girls anymore but they have not completed the ritual that makes them women. In this space and time, they have lost all identity and are lost in this liminal space.

The need to celebrate to mark accomplishments or significant parts of people’s lives dates back to the beginning of time and is human and innate. The ritual to end a journey and signify a new one feels essential. However, when I first learned that we would have a makeup commencement, almost a year after graduation actually happened, I thought it would not be worth the 6 hour trip back here.

Once I saw the class of 2021’s picture on the Transy blog, I started to feel differently. My mind was brought back to when I stood on the steps of Old Morrison with all of you five years ago, feeling a bit lost, very overwhelmed, but also so excited to begin the journey that we all experienced together. Seeing this picture brought reminiscent tears to my eyes, thinking of how many people I never got to give a proper goodbye to, and this reason alone was enough to cause a great excitement within me to come back to Transylvania for this event.

I wondered if any of us had felt lost in the liminal space. I know I had. While we had completed the requirements of this university, and had technically graduated, without the ceremony to mark the journey’s end, I would often forget that it had happened at all.While not technically in this liminal space, it was hard to feel like a college graduate, and impossible to still feel like a student. It was hard to not feel incomplete and hard to not feel lost someplace in between.

Now we are here together again! I know my feelings are not unique, and as we gather here today, I hope we can all experience a lovely and resolute ending in this uncertain time that has taken a lot away from everyone. Seeing all of you here today, I am reminded of the growth we all experienced from the time that we gave each other high-fives and introduced ourselves so many times, that our own names started to sound wrong.That marked the beginning for us at Transylvania, and today marks our bittersweet end. And what a journey it has been!

There is always a shock upon exiting the liminal space and finding where we would fit in with the new identity we have. Our new identity is college graduate. College graduates from Transy. The space we were comfortable in was the “Transy bubble.” This place was one that cultivated our creativity, encouraged our independent thought, and celebrated our uniqueness. Using our education and our new identities is therefore not just using the knowledge we acquired from our prospective majors, but to create and cultivate this space around our new perspective environments. This is what sets us apart as graduates. That is what Transylvania has taught us, and this is our next step on our one of a kind journeys.

I want to thank you all for being a part of my journey and I sincerely hope that this isn’t the last time our paths cross. If we remember this place and what it has taught us, I know that the best and brightest part of this journey lies ahead. Class of 2020, pass on thy light!

Thank you.