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History and Traditions

150 years of political influence and historical milestones at Gallaudet.

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1864 Charter
Gallaudet University became Congressionally funded when President Lincoln signed the charter bill into law; President Ulysses S. Grant attended the first university commencement in 1869.
Welcoming students
Going from a school of 12 students in 1857 to over 1,500 students served in 2020, Gallaudet has always been a consistently growing and evolving university.
Formal recognition of ASL as a Language
As a result of research by William Stokoe, a longtime professor of English at Gallaudet, and the support of two Deaf student researchers, the study of ASL linguistics was established.
100 years later
President Johnson signed an act in 1970 to create the Model Secondary School for the Deaf (MSSD). In the following year, Nixon signed the charter for the Kendall Demonstration Elementary School, making Gallaudet a K-PhD school for the Deaf.
Deaf President Now
In 1988, a movement for deaf leadership transformed into a powerful symbol of self-determination and empowerment for the deaf community.The movement gained worldwide attention and led to the appointment of the 124-year-old university's first deaf president.
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The Legacy Begins

Learn the treasured story of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet’s quest in providing education for deaf individuals. Read the brief history of how Gallaudet University was founded and the significant role  Laurent Clerc played in American deaf education.

Representing the Buff n’ Blue

Every year, our Bison come together to commemorate their rich history.

“Which class are you from?” is the first thing all alumni ask each other. Throughout their years at Gallaudet, students form a strong lifelong bond by participating in unofficial and official events such as DPN celebrations, Rat Day, Bald Day, senior trip, Spirit Week, Homecoming Week, and more.


Homecoming occurs annually and is an exciting time for students and alumni to show their Bison spirit throughout a week in October. Various events include Class Reunions, team sporting events, Pep Rally, College Bowl competition and Greek Conclaves, just to name a few.

Charter Day

Charter Day is held annually in April to celebrate the anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln signing Gallaudet University’s charter in 1864. It typically includes a brunch and an awards ceremony.

DPN Celebration

We celebrate the movement annually with historical celebrations to revere the hard work of the Gallaudet faculty, staff, and student leaders of the DPN movement. At its most recent 30th anniversary, the original 4 student leaders shared their experience through a panel presentation, preserving the legacy of this important movement in our history.

Traditions and Symbols

The Bison Song

A brief story behind this song.

The Bison Song

A brief story behind this song.

Commencement Symbols

The mace that is carried by the faculty marshal as a symbol of the University’s authority made its first ceremonial appearance at the installation of the fourth president of Gallaudet College. In a sense, it has existed longer than the University. It is made of the wood of three notable buildings in deaf education. First, the largest piece is taken from the original stairwell of the Tower Clock building on campus. The second piece comes from the oldest building on the campus of the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut, the oldest school for the deaf in America. Finally, brought over by the late Leon Auerbach, ’40, a former faculty member, the smallest piece in the Mace is a plank of wood from the pulpit of a small church in Feuges, France, that was served by the Abbé Charles Michel de l’ Epée, the founder of the oldest school for the deaf in the world in Paris. The mace was designed by Chun Louie, ’68, a Gallaudet photographer, and handcrafted by Manfred G. Klatt, a Gallaudet carpenter. The silver embellishments were made and applied by Theodore Salazar, an assistant professor in Gallaudet’s Art Department.

The president’s medallion was presented for the first time in 1969 to a Gallaudet president. Meant to be worn on ceremonial occasions, it symbolizes the authority of the President’s Office. The medallion was redesigned in 1986 to coincide with Gallaudet’s achievement of university status and shows the seal of Gallaudet University.

The pageantry and dress of the academic procession have been inherited from the medieval universities of the 11th and 12th centuries. In the Middle Ages, the teaching guild were the masters of arts, the bachelors were the apprentice of the master, and their dress exemplified privilege and responsibility. Principal features of academic dress are the gown, the cap, and the hood. Since the 15th century, Cambridge and Oxford have made the academic dress a matter of university control. American universities agreed on a definite system in 1895, then a revised code was agreed upon in 1932 by the American Council on Education. A colorful array of regalia may be worn by staff and faculty during processions and ceremonies. The variety reflects the variety of institutions from which they graduated and the individual distinguishing customs of those institutions.

While 12th-century gowns may have been worn as protection against the cold of unheated buildings, today the gown is symbolic of the democracy of scholarship. It is black for all degrees, with pointed sleeves for the bachelor’s degree; long, closed sleeves with a slit at the elbow or wrist for the master’s degree; and full, bell double sleeves for the doctoral degree. Undergraduate gowns are all black with the exception of Honors Program graduates who receive blue gowns and gold stoles. Doctor’s gowns are also faced with velvet and have three bars of velvet on each sleeve, often in the color of the faculty’s respective discipline or degree.

Today’s mortarboard is a derivation of the cap worn in the 16th century at the University of Paris. The soft velvet cap of a “doctor of secular faculties” is from the same period. Bachelor’s and master’s degree holders wear tassels of black, while doctoral degree holders wear tassels of gold.

The hood is trimmed with one or more chevrons of a second color representing the primary color of the college. The color facing the hood denotes the discipline represented by the degree. Certain hood colors have historical significance. The white of arts and letter symbolizes the white fur trim of the Oxford bachelor of arts degree. Red, the traditional color of the church, indicates theology; while the royal purple of the King’s Court signifies law. The green of medicinal herbs identifies medicine and blue-the color of wisdom and truth-identifies philosophy.

The honor stole is awarded to graduate students with a 4.0 (straight A) grade point average and to undergraduate students with a 3.4 and above grade point average. This gold satin stole denotes exceptional academic achievement.

Increase your knowledge of a historical university and its pivotal role in the deaf community.

Visit Gallaudet University’s Archives and Deaf Collections on-campus or stop by the National Deaf Life Museum to learn more about the history of our university and the deaf community. A wide variety of collections and interchanging exhibitions can be found at Archives and at the museum, as well as artistic and historic exhibitions at the Linda K. Jordan Gallery. View the campus map to start your historical adventure.

Admissions Requirements

Hearing Undergraduate