A year ago I visited the Athabasca University campus for the first time, to attend Convocation 2001. It was an inspiring experience, one that motivated me to write my very first article for the Voice. I was profoundly touched by the formality of the ceremony and the personal experiences related by the graduates, and it was great to see the university itself and meet some of my fellow AU students.
One year later I’ve attended my second convocation. I was even more deeply moved by the ceremony this year, because I’ve become more closely involved with the university and have developed a much greater appreciation for Athabasca University and the achievement of graduation. Last year I was a distant spectator, this year I was an active participant in the proceedings.
University planning for convocation begins very early, since as one staff member put it, “graduation day is the reason the university exists.” The university recognizes the importance of that achievement and the convocation ceremony reflects this. Honorary degree recipient at Friday’s ceremonies, Dr. James Shapiro, commented that he had never seen a graduation quite like this one, and that he had a whole new appreciation for Athabasca University and its students. Countless times I heard the same comment from people who had graduated from “traditional” universities. For those who have never had the opportunity to attend, I would like to give you an idea of what it is like.
We started the day off with a pancake breakfast in the parking lot, sponsored by AUSU. It was a bit chilly, but the sun was shining. The McDade’s provided the music while VP Student Services Judith Hughes, Library Director Steve Schafer, and I fried sausages and flipped pancakes. At 10:00 AM we shut the breakfast down, and I headed inside to greet students. At the university entrance, tables are set up so grads can collect their name tag, and receive instructions on robing and grad photos. You could feel the pride and the excitement of each grad as they walked in the door. Often their family and friends were equally excited, all answering “yes” when I asked if they were graduating!
As president of AUSU, I am the student representative on Athabasca University Governing Council, and this required me to play a very special role in convocation. Governing Council is the official degree-granting body of the university, and although Chair Robert Fulton is the spokesperson, council members are also expected to be in attendance as part of the convocation procession. At 12:30 we all put on our blue robes and lined up at the doorway in pairs (we felt like entrants to Noah’s ark!). The academics & department heads were behind us, robed in red and black. At 1:00 P.M. Registrar Gilbert Perras, robed, white-gloved and official looking, gave the signal; and carrying the Athabasca University Mace over his shoulder, proceeded into the tent. The bagpiper led the black-robed graduates in, and we followed.
As each graduate comes forward to receive his/her degree, Alan Davis, VP Academic, announces his or her name and reads a short bio. I was quite impressed with how well Dr. Davis pronounced everyone’s name – especially the student with the longest last name I’ve ever heard – 19 letters total! The bios are the most moving part of the ceremony, hearing the personal statements of students and how they have struggled to make it to graduation. The first graduate to receive a diploma this year was 83-year-old Elizabeth Bassendowski. I spoke with her afterwards and told her how inspiring I found her accomplishment. She informed me that she has already started another course with AU, and plans to just keep on learning!
Students thanked their families for being patient, and promised that the first thing they would be doing after graduation was spending more time with spouses & children. As part of Governing Council, I sat in the front row this year. I could see each graduate’s expression up close, filled with emotion and pride. Many were struggling to hold back tears, and I found it difficult to hold back my own at times. There was humour too. During Friday’s awarding of Master’s degrees one student got the whole audience rolling in laughter when he thanked his employer – he was a quality control tester for Molson’s Brewery – prompting Alan Davis to remark that apparently there were many “quality control testers out there!”
Honorary degree recipient Dr. Joseph Schwarcz closed the ceremonies with a short discourse on the importance of making science understandable to everyone. Dr. Schwarcz teaches at McGill University in Montreal, and will be hosting his own science program on the Discovery channel in the fall. I had the privilege of meeting him after when I presented him with an engraved clock on behalf of AUSU.
Convocation ceremonies finally came to a close, the bagpiper once again led us out. This time Governing Council and Academics led the way, and we all lined the red carpet to applaud the graduates as they emerged, faces beaming in delight as they left the tent. The weather continued to cooperate and it remained sunny and warm as grads and guests enjoyed a late afternoon tea co-sponsored by the University and AUSU.
Next year, of course, I will have yet another perspective of convocation, since I plan to be among the graduates. To all who graduated this year, congratulations – well done!
Debbie is a native Edmontonian, and a single parent with four daughters. She has worked as a professional musician for most of her life, and has enjoyed a rich variety of life experiences – with many more to come! Debbie is working towards an eventual doctorate in psychology, and currently serves as the president of the Athabasca University Students Union.