Ring That Bell

by | Mar 14, 2022 | Culture, On Campus

A metallic, quasi-melodic clanking reverberates through the Graduate Center at Walker Hall. A smile spreads across UC Davis doctoral student Jackson Badger’s face as his friends, family and lab mates applaud him. Badger’s shoulders drop as relief washes over him. With the ringing of this bell, his doctoral degree at UC Davis is complete.

The ringing of a bell is a uniquely Aggie tradition started in the early 2000s by Graduate Admissions and Advising staff in the Office of Graduate Studies to help students celebrate the completion of their master’s or doctoral degrees. It is an especially revered tradition for those who, for a variety of reasons, cannot attend the commencement celebration in the spring.

A significant milestone

Students are eligible to ring the bell after their exit appointment, which is when a Graduate Studies senior academic advisor reviews a graduate student’s paperwork and formatting, then files them to graduate, according to Brad Wolf, a former senior academic advisor at UC Davis Graduate Studies.

Every time the bell is rung (no, an angel doesn’t get their wings) staff from Graduate Admissions and Advising emerge from their cubicles to applaud the student, often shouting “Congratulations, doctor!” to the newly appointed Ph.D.

Leola Calzolai-Stewart (center) with her film partners

Friends of Fatima Hussain (pictured above) cheer as she rings a cow bell during the ceremony signifying the completion of her doctoral program in chemistry. (Karin Higgins/UC Davis)

“The bell ringing is a physical act to cap off all the hard work people have completed,” Wolf said. “It helps create a sense of celebration and excitement when students submit their dissertations after years of hard work.”

Badger, Ph.D. ’21, said his own bell ringing was a meaningful moment for him because it signified the culmination of six-plus years of graduate school and research.

“It felt great. There were several times that I didn’t think I would get through it all,” he said. “But, when I rang that bell, I thought, ‘Here I am. I’m all done. No more obligations, no more paperwork.’ It was a nice capstone.”

The bell’s evolution

The original bell for the ceremony was a cowbell adorned with bikes, because “It’s more ‘Aggie,’” Wolf said, adding: “What’s more Davis than cows and bikes?”

Graduate Studies now has numerous bells on hand for students. In spring 2022, Brian K. Sanders, Ed.D. ’14, donated a 5-inch-high, solid metal bell to Graduate Studies. The bell will be placed on a wooden podium in the upstairs reception area in the Graduate Center at Walker Hall.

Ring that bell

While the bell’s clanking sound may be clear, its origin story is not. Former Vice Provost and Dean of Graduate Studies Jeff Gibeling recalled mentioning at a staff meeting that some kind of ceremony was needed to commemorate the submission of a dissertation or thesis.

“I was concerned that students would come in to meet with a staff member to formally file their dissertation or thesis and walk out quietly – it seemed rather anticlimactic,” he said.

Leola Calzolai-Stewart (center) with her film partners

Graduate Studies has numerous bells that students can ring to celebrate. (Karin Higgins/UC Davis)

But as to who first rang the bell years ago, no one knows.

Still, since that first bovine-inspired melody rang out years ago, hundreds of doctoral and master’s students have raised this idiophone hand-percussion instrument high above their heads, shaking it vigorously for all to hear. Sometimes even members of the student’s friends and family, especially the children, pick up the bell to ring it on behalf of the new graduate.

“I’ve seen the gamut, when it comes to bell ringers,” said Wolf who has witnessed dozens of bell-ringing ceremonies in his years working as a graduate advisor. “I tell people to ring it as hard as they want. There’s a wide range of enthusiasm in bell ringing.”

The bell persisted

With the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, as the university pivoted to virtual learning and remote work for staff, the bell sat silent for many months. Some in the Graduate Studies community worried it would not ring again.

Fortunately, the power of the bell persisted. In fall 2021, Badger became the first person to revive the ceremony since spring 2020 — and did so in the newly renovated Graduate Center at Walker Hall.

“It meant a lot for me to ring the bell before I started my new job,” said Badger, who joined a Bay Area startup just days after graduating. “It’s become a sort of rite of passage.”


If you are a graduate alum who missed out on this time-honored tradition and would like to live out your dreams of being like Will Ferrell on “Saturday Night Live” or your inner Anita Ward, head over to the Graduate Center at Walker Hall.