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LOS ANGELES — By design, universities unite students from all walks of life.

But at a growing number of colleges, challenging the status quo begins not after graduation, but during — with several groups choosing to segregate themselves on the big day.

The University of California Los Angeles, for instance, hosts several commencement ceremonies, and there’s a growing trend to hold separate celebrations that divide students not by academic discipline but by color, ethnicity and sexual orientation.

"We don’t feel they are exclusionary," said Bob Naples, an assistant vice chancellor to the UCLA dean of students. "We do believe they are celebratory."

Several universities — including UCLA, Iowa State University and the University of Oregon — hold a "Lavender Graduation" for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students. A number of schools also have special ceremonies for blacks and other racial and ethnic groups.

While some view the separate graduations as an opportunity for special recognition — and say they’re acting out of pride, not prejudice — others are concerned the phenomenon represents a step backward, undermining integration rights that minorities have fought hard to get.

"It has symbolic significance, that 'We’re going to recognize a segregated culture,'" said David Horowitz of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture in Los Angeles.

"Not too long ago, in the segregated South, blacks and whites did have separate graduations," Horowitz said. "The fact that universities are reviving this tradition should be very worrying to most people."

Naples defends the diverse commencement concept, saying the smaller ceremonies allow for individual recognition that is sometimes lost in the shuffle at large graduations.

"The students separately decided they wanted to start doing some of their own celebratory activities, where they may have their name read or there could be some cultural experience or there could be an opportunity to stand up and thank their parents," he said.

And some of those who have participated say it makes graduation more meaningful.

"I think this celebration is the icing on the cake," said Severino Lozano, who took part in the Lavender Graduation at UCLA. "It reaffirms who we are and how special we are."

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