TALLAHASSEE — Every December at Florida State University, as the air begins to crackle with a wintry chill and the libraries explode to life with hordes of finals-crazed students, hundreds of soon-to-be graduates gather for the V-rak-ke-ce-tv Cultural Graduation Ceremony—a time for reflection and recognition inspired by the university’s special relationship with the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
During this year’s ceremony, held on the evening of Dec. 14 in FSU’s Oglesby Union Ballroom, students were encouraged to celebrate their accomplishments, give thanks to those who sacrificed on their behalf and invoke the wisdom of the Seminole Tribe as they move forward in their lives.
The product of a partnership between the university’s Center for Leadership & Social Change, the Center for Academic Retention & Enhancement, the Student Government Association and University Housing, the V-rak-ke-ce-tv Cultural Graduation Ceremony is a bi-annual event designed to reinforce the strong ties between FSU and the Seminole Tribe of Florida. While not an official graduation commencement itself—no degrees are conferred during the ceremony—the program has become an indispensable graduation week tradition.
V-rak-ke-ce-tv, a Seminole Creek word meaning “to honor,” serves as both the namesake and the guiding principle for the graduation ceremony. Associate Director of the Center for Leadership & Social Change Miguel Hernandez, who helped found the ceremony five years ago, said it was conceived of as a way to unite students of disparate backgrounds and experiences while showing respect to their shared Seminole identity.
“We have so many different and amazing identities, backgrounds, cultures and nationalities in our student body, so we decided that one way we could approach the celebration is by connecting with the Seminole Tribe of Florida,” Hernandez said. “That is an identity that bonds all of us here at Florida State.”
In order to ensure respectful representation of the customs and symbols of the Seminole Tribe, Hernandez and his team solicit the expertise of teachers throughout the tribal community. Each year since its inception, a member of the Seminole Tribe of Florida has served on the ceremony’s planning committee — a vital source of guidance, said Hernandez, as the team incorporates tribal elements, themes and teachings into its larger program. This year, Tribal member and FSU alumna D’anna Osceola played that important role.
What began in its first year as a small service honoring 35 students and their families has since blossomed into one of the most anticipated and popular graduation week events. Now, Hernandez said, 225 students a year participate in the V-rak-ke-ce-tv ceremonies.
“The fact that students are interested —the feedback we get from parents in terms of the intimacy and the way it represents success and accomplishment — it’s been gratifying,” Hernandez said. “There are many lessons that the members of the Seminole Tribe, especially the elders, have taught us about language and about preserving their traditions and customs. It’s been very humbling to learn from them, about how they continue to live unconquered, what their plans are for the future and how proud they are of our institution and our students. This ceremony is always a highlight of my year.”
During this year’s ceremony, graduating students walked across an elevated stage and received a stole—a long, ceremonial shawl—from a family member, friend or mentor of their choosing. Each stole was emblazoned with the traditional Seminole red, yellow, black and white.
Speaking to those in attendance on behalf of the Class of 2018, graduating student Malcom Robbs urged his cohorts to use their accomplishment as an opportunity to renew their commitment to upholding the undaunted Seminole spirit.
“When you walk across that stage, you make a commitment to the support that got you here,” he said. “You make a commitment to never stop fighting, to never stop lifting for those who can’t lift for themselves. In this world, people need a rock more than ever. People need hope and shelter in the time of a storm.”
Seminole Tribe of Florida representatives Richard Osceola and Sunshine Frank, who presented Robbs with gifts on behalf of Tribe Chairman Marcellus W. Osceola Jr., said events like the V-rak-ke-ce-tv ceremony demonstrate the strong relationship and enduring good will between the Tribe and the university.
“It’s humbling,” Richard Osceola said. “We’re overwhelmed by the work the university does. It’s an honor throughout the community to be affiliated with the university in the matters of culture and education and everything that comes with it.”
Frank, broadcasting manager at Seminole Media Productions, remarked on the significant growth in the relationship between the Tribe and FSU over the past 30 years. She said she hopes the strong ties illustrated in the V-rak-ke-ce-tv ceremony can be translated into more Seminole Tribe members pursuing an education at Florida State.
“I went to school for hospitality, and there are a lot of kids now in the tribe that are getting interested in hospitality,” she said. “I would love for them to come up here and explore the options that are available at Florida State. It would make the bond between the tribe and the school even stronger.”