By Tim Linn, Assistant Director of University Relations, Rockhurst University

Graduates, led by members of the St. Andrew Pipes and Drums, parade through downtown Kansas City, MO during the 2018 Hawk Walk (photo by Rockhurst University)

Graduates, led by members of the St. Andrew Pipes and Drums, parade through downtown Kansas City, MO during the 2018 Hawk Walk (photo by Rockhurst University)

Rockhurst University is proud to be a part of the fabric of Kansas City, MO.

From its founding in 1910, at what was then the southern edge of the city, to the present day, the University lives its informal motto “in the city for good” both in its approach to its work and as a sincere appreciation for the great community that is Kansas City.

So why wouldn’t Rockhurst take the opportunity to tie one of its foremost academic rites of passage — commencement — to that idea, as well? This May marked the 10th time when (after their commencement ceremony) students gathered in front of the Municipal Auditorium downtown,  to be led by bagpipes to the KC Live Block — a popular public gathering space inside of the city’s Power and Light District. It’s a march known as the Hawk Walk.

Ten years might not be that long in terms of campus traditions but since 2009, the march has become an anticipated ritual for current students. “They tell students about it when they move in for freshman orientation,” said Brent Blazek, assistant director of alumni relations and a 2017 graduate of Rockhurst’s MBA program. “We’re really happy that it has been able to build momentum in that way.”

It can be tough for an event to become a tradition but in the years since it started, Hawk Walk has become as much a part of the commencement experience as flipping that tassel to the other side of the graduation cap.

“At the time, I was really excited to be going to the next step in my life, even though it meant leaving some of my friends and classmates behind,” said Katie Killen, ’09. “Hawk Walk gave me a chance to say goodbye to a lot of people all at once — it really solidified this idea that Rockhurst is a family.”

But, perhaps more importantly, Hawk Walk is an exclamation point on the commencement weekend, which begins with the Baccalaureate Mass on the Friday before the ceremony. Students leave Municipal Auditorium as college graduates and leave the KC Live Block hours later as alumni. The time in between — Hawk Walk – is where that ecstatic transition takes place in real time.

“It’s the second half of that graduation experience — the commencement ceremony itself is very formal,” Blazek said. “Hawk Walk is a chance for the graduates to celebrate together in a more casual environment.”

It all starts with a three-block parade through the streets led by Kansas City’s St. Andrew Pipes and Drums, set against the background of downtown’s mix of old and new architecture, from the iconic pylons at the Bartle Hall Convention Center to the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

Rockhurst’s president, Rev. Thomas B. Curran, S.J., frequently welcomes graduates and family members into the KC Live Block with a decidedly festive hat featuring a pair of clapping plastic hands. Then comes a jubilant hat toss, and a quick welcome from the president of the University’s Young Alumni Council. What happens then is part block party and part family reunion, featuring music, food and drink, and a photobooth with Fr. Curran.

“We typically have about 2,500 to 3,000 people in the KC Live Block,” Blazek said. “Once we get everyone from point A to point B, our job really is to make sure that they all have a good time.”

Even for an event marking the culmination of her college experience, Killen said that Hawk Walk was an unexpectedly poignant moment. Thinking back to her own graduation, she remembered making her way through the crowd, seeking out good friends for goodbyes, and again and again bumping into those with whom she had shared some smaller connection — a class or two, maybe — over her four years at Rockhurst. They all got goodbyes, as well.

“I don’t know that you would get those same little moments at a larger school,” she said.

As much as the event is about experiencing the present moment, it’s also about the past and the future. Kansas City is in the midst of a renaissance embodied by downtown’s revitalization and efforts such as the streetcar line, which opened in 2016 and runs right through the city. For many students, Kansas City is a central part of their experience as a Rockhurst student.

“From day one when you get to campus, you hear about the Jesuit philosophy and looking around your community to see where you can serve and make it better,” said Killen.

Killen added that, after graduation, she took that advice to heart, working for the nearby city of Shawnee, Kansas, and still has a passion to serve her community. She said, “In hindsight, during Hawk Walk, I think a lot of us were walking through the streets of this place [that] we were going to serve in one way or another.”