The University’s Final Exercises is a whirlwind of tears, applause, nostalgia — and balloons. Every year, the University’s graduating class lines up around the Rotunda for the unforgettable procession down the Lawn. Thousands of parents, friends and faculty members watch the students adorn the honors of honors and make their way across the Lawn. The Rotunda is filled with black caps and gowns that symbolize the end of something old, and the beginning of something new.
But among the sea of black garments, a striking contrast of color illuminates the Lawn. As the graduates take their final walk as students of the University, hundreds of students elect to participate in a popular tradition unique to just the University, carrying colorful, helium balloons of various emblems, animals, food and even cartoon characters that fill up the sky.
When families, friends or faculty want to congratulate the new graduates after the ceremony, the personalized balloons can make it easier to find a particular student. In the past, graduating students have brought everything from smiley faces to their favorite sports teams as their choice of balloon.
Fourth-year College student Sisi Snavely said she’s excited to partake in this long-held tradition come Finals Exercises and hopes the balloons are a tradition the University keeps alive in years to come. Some students strive to carry balloons that match their interests and hobbies. Snavely is bringing a cactus balloon that she says matches her personality and individual aesthetic.
“I just really love plants, especially houseplants and succulents specifically, and I also love the color green,” Snavely said. “So I thought a cactus balloon would be perfect and fitting with my personality and the things that I like.”
On a more practical note, the balloons are an easy way for graduates to identify themselves among thousands of other students wearing identical caps and gowns.
“I think it kind of gives everyone a way to stand out because everyone’s wearing the same thing,” Snavely said. “Your balloon is kind of like your accessory for the day.”
This grand display of helium balloons has been a trademark at the University graduation for the past several years. The assortment of bobbing balloons accompanied by the smiling faces of the new alums is a sight to see on a day that can be so bittersweet for many.
Fourth-year College student Cristen Huynh plans to make her graduation special by bringing a sushi balloon that encapsulates her time at the University and the memories she has made in the last four years.
“Sushi is my favorite food and some of my best memories at college are me and my friends getting all-you-can-eat sushi at Sushi King,” Huynh said. “Me and one of my closest friends, we actually make sushi together for dinner sometimes, and we like to host all of our friends for that. It brings out a lot of good memories.”
Huynh says she enjoys the task of finding the right balloon because it’s a way to celebrate the emotional culmination of completing college.
“Graduation is kind of sad,” Huynh said. “I think it’s nice to have something that everyone looks forward to and bring a huge balloon to walk around with so that your friends and family can find where you are.”
Carrying fun and colorful balloons isn’t the only thing students are looking forward to, though. This year especially, graduation for the Class of 2023 can feel like an even more significant milestone given that their first year was interrupted by COVID-19. Final Exercises will be very meaningful for students and families alike to come together in one place and celebrate the end of a long journey over the past four years, according to Snavely.
“I’m really excited to see everyone together one last time and to be with all my friends, and to also have my family in my favorite place with my favorite people,” Snavely said.
To share that joy, the University has partnered with the U.Va Children’s Hospital since 2019 to donate balloons from Finals Exercises to the children at the hospital. This year, graduates can donate their balloons either before or after the ceremony to the Balloon Brigade volunteers who will collect the balloons and deliver them to the hospital — a special way to give back to the Charlottesville community and reduce potential waste damage to the environment.
Bringing a balloon to Final Exercises, although a simple University tradition, adds a high-spirited touch to what can be a nostalgic and sentimental time for many graduates. Graduates are able to have something that symbolizes their time in college or tell a story about a niche part of their personality. But above all, it is a uniquely unforgettable element of graduation weekend.
“U.Va. has brought me the best memories and the best people,” Huynh said. “So I’m super excited to just be surrounded by all my really close friends that I’m going to have for life. And to add to the excitement, I’m definitely looking forward to having cute pictures with our balloons that makes everything even more memorable.”