High cost graduation tickets yield harsh responses, talk of change

Lea Lunden, a psychology major, says the price is too high, at 85 dollars per ticket, for her and her family to attend her department's graduaton celebration that will be held on the Hornblower— a local yacht in San Francisco. Photo by Virginia Tieman / Xpress
Lea Lunden, a psychology major, says the price is too high, at 85 dollars per ticket, for her and her family to attend her department's graduaton celebration that will be held on the Hornblower— a local yacht in San Francisco. Photo by Virginia Tieman / Xpress

Three of the four years of her college career, Lea Lunden worked anywhere from 25 to 40 hours a week as a server while pursuing her dream of being a psychology researcher. In her senior year, she injured herself while moving furniture at work and was diagnosed with scoliosis.

Many students may have backed down, but a dedicated Lunden is now ready to graduate after a grueling four years of school and work with honors as the president of the SF State chapter of Psi Chi, a national honors society for psychology students. She even interned at one of New York University’s research labs, one of the most prestigious universities in the country.

All Lunden wanted was for her father and grandmother to see her graduate and walk the stage as proudly as she’s walked through school; to have her determination recognized.

She’s not getting that wish.

The San Francisco Chronicle broke the news of Lunden’s struggle with SF State’s psychology department. The department is charging $85 a ticket for a graduation “celebration” aboard a local yacht called the Hornblower, a price that Lunden and many other students say is too high and would stop their families from seeing them graduate.

A family of four, plus the graduating student, would end up paying $425 to hear the graduate’s name called, and see them walk the stage. Notably, students must purchase tickets and they are the same price as for their families or guests.

Though the school has a formal graduation ceremony, many departments have their own ceremony because there are too many students graduating at once to read individual names. Therefore, each department has a smaller ceremony, called a “celebration” or “recognition ceremony,” where they are able to read names of individual students.

It was when Lunden tried to organize an alternative celebration ceremony that she was rebuked by the chair of the psychology department, Dr. Julia Lewis.

Lunden presented a survey of 40 psychology students who shared personal stories of financial hardship, and why they would not attend the yacht celebration, which 60 more students also signed. Her pleas fell on deaf ears.

According to email conversations between Lewis and Lunden, Lewis pressed Lunden to cease seeking an alternative venue.

“I understand that you have had a conversation with Dr. Howell who explained to you why the department cannot sponsor more than one graduation-related event. That event is the Hornblower,” Lewis wrote. “I am willing to meet with you again to discuss this and hopefully to achieve understanding and closure.”

In an email between a psychology student, who asked not to be named, and John Michael Cable, the psychology department office coordinator, Cable acknowledged that the department is aware of the problem, and despite that, chose to continue with the Hornblower.

“I can understand your frustration,” Cable wrote. “The department knows that the cost of the Hornblower event will price some families out of attending.”

Lewis offered a response to the situation with Lunden via email. She pointed out that it was Lunden’s group, Psi Chi, that asked for the yacht cruise in the first place.

“Ms. Lunden represents Psi Chi, the Psychology Honor Association. It was Psi Chi who, five years ago, found the Hornblower and initiated the celebration on the Hornblower,” Lewis wrote.

She also added that only this past year did the price jump up, due to the Hornblower’s rates increasing. Previous years, the graduation ceremony was $55 per ticket, Lewis wrote. But that price is still well above most departments’ ticket price for their own ceremonies.

Student and management major Colin Mahin, 25, is the president of the Management Organization for Business Students — a group on campus whose sole and only purpose is to raise money and find a venue for business students to celebrate graduation.

Mahin whistled loud when he heard how much the Hornblower yacht cruise would cost per ticket for psychology department graduates. At first, he didn’t quite believe it.

“I personally would be totally on for going on a yacht, that sounds amazing,” he said. “But at the same time I’ve seen hesitance from students on paying even 20 dollars to go (to a graduation celebration).”

An informal survey of numerous departments at SF State shows that the psychology department has one of the highest rates for graduation celebration tickets. Most departments surveyed had free ceremonies, or ceremonies costing $25 or less.

One exception was the English department, which has no ceremony separate from the University’s main graduation.

Change may be coming next year. In his comment to The Chronicle, University President Leslie E. Wong said that the University would revisit the structure of graduation school wide in which Lewis agreed.

“In his statement to the Chronicle President Wong expressed his vision that next year commencement will be structured so that all graduating students will have a chance to have their names called and recognized,” Lewis said in an email.  “We support this vision.”

Lewis may support Wong changing the way graduations are run, but she hasn’t welcomed it in her department.

Lunden said the psychology department tried to stop her from forming a student-run committee to find a cheaper alternative, but elsewhere in the University, some departments have adopted the practice successfully for years.