Commencement for the Class of 2021, scheduled for May 16, will look different from any in the University’s history, with graduates and their guests masked and socially distanced at Princeton Stadium, away from the familiar backdrop of Nassau Hall.The stadium will join a long list of Princeton venues that have hosted graduation ceremonies. According to April C. Armstrong *14, special collections assistant at the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, the College of New Jersey held its first Commencement at a church in Newark in 1748. When the College moved to Princeton, ceremonies were primarily held at First Presbyterian (now Nassau Presbyterian) until the construction of Alexander Hall, which was built to provide a space large enough for campuswide events, including the growing Commencement celebrations. In June 1894, The Daily Princetonian reported on the first graduation exercises held in “the new Alexander Commencement Hall.”
When Commencement outgrew Alexander in 1922, the ceremony moved to the lawn in front of Nassau Hall. But since then, other venues have hosted smaller Commencement gatherings, including the University Chapel and the Nassau Hall faculty room during World War II. More recently, two gymnasiums — Dillon and Jadwin — have been home to ceremonies that were moved indoors because of poor weather.
Looking at the full span of University history, Armstrong notes that “a comfortable majority” of Commencement ceremonies have been held somewhere other than the lawn of Nassau Hall. Even last year’s cancellation of in-person Commencement has historical precedent: In 1793, Commencement was called off because of a yellow fever epidemic.