From My Perspective – Graduation Special – The Class of 2003

Author’s note: This is the third of three articles that will detail three very special and very different graduation experiences. I have the privilege this year of participating in three graduations – my youngest daughter has graduated from high school, my second eldest daughter has graduated from university, and I graduated on June 14! Each of us will be celebrating a very unique kind of achievement, and each of us face very different futures.

On Friday, June 13, I attended Athabasca University’s graduate ceremony as AUSU representative on Governing Council, followed on Saturday, June 14, by my own graduation. I had asked convocation organizers if this year AUSU could have a more visible role in the ceremony, so that students would be more aware of our presence and the hard work we do, and the university agreed. In previous years we would have to track down the honorary degree recipient after the ceremony and make the presentation outside, and graduate gifts were distributed back in the robing room. This year we were able to present our gift to the honorary degree recipient from on stage, and the gift to the graduates would also be handed out from the side of the stage during the ceremonies. For the first time, I sat in the front row, stage right, as a member of the stage party. It was a very different feeling to look out at the crowd instead of being part of it. Watching the proud expressions of family members as they applauded their loved ones who were graduating reinforced for me how important this event was to everyone involved.

The heat on Friday was intense, and it was not long into the ceremony before all those on stage began to feel stifled and sweaty under our gowns. I admired the way Registrar Gilbert Perras, University President Dominique Abrioux, and Governing Council Chair Robert Fulton, managed to maintain their smiles throughout, congratulating students and going through the ceremony ritual without a hint of the discomfort they were feeling from the heat.

Presentation of the masters degrees is done the same way as the undergrad degrees, but there is a difference. Undergrads feel their accomplishment far more keenly, and their stories generally reflect a very hard struggle to achieve their degree, sometimes over a long period of time. They range in age all the way up to senior citizens, and many are single parents with small children. The achievement of a degree represents a significant accomplishment in their lives, and the level of excitement and emotion is therefore more intense. Those receiving masters degrees, on the other hand, tend to be already well-established professionals in their careers and the transition they are making is less pronounced. Often their employer is paying their tuition, and although they work very hard for their degrees, their struggle does not appear to have the same level of emotion and drama as the undergrads. One of the members of governing council, however, pointed out a notable exception. He commented that it seemed to him that male students cited the self-improvement and better career prospects that their masters degree would bring, whereas female students spoke of how a masters degree was an absolute essential for them to be able to move forward. This generated some interesting debate later that evening on the discrimination against women that still exists in the business world.

A touching moment came when the name of graduate Mervin Roy was announced and Dr. Davis added that Mervin had died only a few weeks before. Mervin had completed the requirements for his MDE prior to his death, and he had been planning on marrying (he met his fiance through his online studies) after graduation. A fellow student who he had become very close with accepted the degree posthumously on his behalf, and it was hard to hold back the tears.

The address by graduate Bill Robinson, MAIS, from Prince Edward Island, was encouraging to graduates. Bill spoke of the shared experience of struggling to maintain family and life responsibilities while studying for a masters’ degree, and concluded with a well-known traditional Irish blessing, “may the road rise up to meet you, may the wind be always at your back.”

Then the honorary degree recipient, Robert Stollery, was introduced. Finally, a speech worthy of a graduation! Dr. Stollery began by speaking about the uniqueness of AU, and how it has quietly become the number one distance education provider in Canada. He then said he’d like to share a few words with the graduates, some thoughts for the troubled times we live in. He briefly mentioned the series of events that have profoundly affected our world during the last few years, and commented how people are deceived into thinking everything is bad by the media. He then added that as graduates, it was important for all to remember that we only hear about the 5% of businesses, companies, and organizations that are dishonest or harm others. The vast majority of organizations we never hear about – yet they are honest, value integrity and do good. He reminded graduates that this is the world graduates will be involved in, one where they will have an opportunity to improve things.

Dr. Stollery then went on to speak of his own philosophy on philanthropy. In the intro, AUGC Vice-Chair David Burnett commented that while Robert Stollery was head of PCL construction, he had spent some 10% of his time doing volunteer and charitable works, but now that he has retired, this has reversed to become 90% of his time. Dr. Stollery stated that around 30% of Canadians volunteer their time in some capacity to help others, or work with a volunteer group. This might seem a significant number, however Dr. Stollery disabused us of this notion. First he noted that 70% of Canadians don’t volunteer – then added that even though Canadians tend to think of themselves as being somewhat “superior” to the U.S. when it comes to “good works,” in reality Americans volunteer at much higher rates than we do.

He encouraged graduates to think about the effects they can have on the world and on others, not just through the degree they have just worked so hard to achieve, but by giving freely of their time. He concluded by adding that “success is not a destination, it’s a journey.”

Robert Fulton thanked Dr. Stollery for his thought-provoking speech, and then stated that we were not yet done with him. He then introduced me and invited me to make the presentation on behalf of the students. I presented him with a lovely hand-crafted wood photo album upon which we had engraved the university logo, name, degree, and year. Dr. Stollery commented that it was very beautiful and thanked me and AUSU.

The ceremonies ended and the procession was led off the stage by the piper. The stage party and the academics led the way, then we all lined the red carpet to create an honour guard for the graduates and applaud their exit. It’s a thrilling moment, and I wondered how it would feel the next day when it was my turn to walk the red carpet.

Saturday morning dawned sunny with some clouds, and as I headed over to the university at 7 AM to help set up the AUSU pancake breakfast, I kept an eye on the sky, worried about the possibility of rain. The breakfast went very well, with at least 250 people in attendance. The McDade’s provided the entertainment once again this year, and at one point we even had President Dominique Abrioux flipping pancakes along with VP Academic Judith Hughes and VP Finance Pat Eagar!

There was plenty of organizing to do, and the morning went by quickly. We needed to arrange a system to give the graduation gifts on stage, and we wanted to ensure it went off well so that the university would be willing to allow us to continue the practice in subsequent years. One of the reasons graduation runs so smoothly is that everything is detailed word for word in a printed protocol. Instruction booklets are handed out to each person participating, and everyone is briefed in advance, practicing if necessary. By the time lunch was served, we had everything in order. AUSU VP Shirley Barg and Carla, AUSU’s Administrative Assistant, would hand out gifts by the side of the stage, a table next to them loaded with the portfolios that were this year’s gift to graduates. One catch was that the table had unstable corners, so Shirley and Carla were given strict instructions to not empty all the boxes on one side – or risk a table collapse under the uneven weight! Fortunately all went well.

At noon I returned to the hotel to get ready for the afternoon ceremonies. My daughters had arrived early that morning and would be seated near the front. We had had many discussions about this moment, and I was sure that I would not be able to hold back the tears, especially if I dared look their way.

Through my work with Governing Council and various university committees, I’ve developed very close relationships with many AU administration and staff, and the previous evening had received multiple congratulations. They were all thrilled for me. A few of them teased me that they were going to heckle me as I crossed the stage, and VP Academic Alan Davis joked that he had some “very special” things he would be saying about me in my bio. Although grads are asked a list of questions about what kinds of things they would like to say in their bio (who they thank, memorable moments, what they are looking forward to), a university writer prepares the actual wording, so I did not know what to expect. Dr. Davis has an amazing talent for pronouncing all the names perfectly, and he injects a bit of humour into the bio reading to make the whole experience that much more warm and enjoyable. This would be his final AU convocation, since he is moving to Niagara College to take on the role of VP Academic there. I knew, of course, that he would not do anything to diminish the importance and seriousness of the ceremony, but the teasing helped alleviate the tension.

Graduands (graduands before receiving the diploma; graduates after) were required to be in the robing room by 12:30 P.M. Saturday. As soon as I entered, I was told that Alan Davis needed to see me. I stood in line to wait my turn as he briefed all the others and double checked the pronunciation of each person’s name. When it was my turn, he took my hand to congratulate me, then spontaneously gave me a big hug. It seemed prophetic and set the tone for many more hugs to come!

Once robed, we were grouped according to degree, then Dr. Davis and stage manager Jim D’Arcy gave us detailed instructions on exactly where, when, and how, we were to walk and sit. Many of us were worried that we would not be able to manage kneeling gracefully in our gowns when we were presented, so a stool was provided so that we could practice. Names were double and triple-checked as we lined up and waited for the signal. Although conversation in the room was hushed, the tension and excitement was tangible, faces beaming with barely-suppressed elation. I knew what to expect from the rest of the procession, but I found myself feeling equally as giddy as my fellow graduands. With a final “we’re off!”, I heard the strains of the bagpipes and we proudly marched forward onto the red carpet.

As we left the building towards the graduation tent, walking under the canopy, to my left was the governing council procession I had been part of the previous day, and they all waved and called to me. I almost lost it when I turned to my right to see three of my daughters, cameras in hands, their smiling faces full of pride as they cheered, “yeah mom!” I blinked back the tears and continued walking, only to encounter my other daughter on my left, her eyes also welling up with tears. I took a deep breath and entered the graduation tent. What a moment! It was finally here.

We filed up the stairs as instructed and waited at our seats until the complete procession had entered. Following the graduands was governing council, then the academics. Bringing up the rear was the stage party, and once they were in place, the ceremony began with the singing of Oh Canada.

Robert Fulton opened the ceremonies with a welcoming address. He commented how the very first graduation ceremony in 1977 had consisted of only two graduates – and yet the university had managed to mix up their names and award them the wrong degrees! The audience roared, and the tone was set for the rest of the afternoon. AU’s graduation ceremony is a very unique blend of formality, ceremony and ritual – balanced by a warm humanness, sense of humour, and individual recognition. These combine to make our graduation extremely special and unforgettable.

Since the BA’s are awarded first, I was among the first dozen graduates. I was feeling very calm, almost dazed. Although I heard the words everyone was saying, they were not quite registering. As I came into position next in line, stage manager Jim D’Arcy (who also happens to work in the registrar’s office) congratulated me, then sternly said, “so you know I won’t be processing any more course extensions for you!” I was momentarily taken aback, then he smiled and added, “Does that feel good?” His words brought me back to reality, and I smiled and agreed with him that it felt VERY good not to be worrying about any more course extensions! The tension was gone and I suddenly felt thrilled to be there. I was about to graduate and the emotion overwhelmed me.

Then Dr. Davis called my name and it was my turn to kneel. Although I had eagerly awaited hearing what he would say in my bio, I hardly heard any of the words. I was concentrating on not crying, trying not to look at my daughters, trying to just savor every impression and forever remember the emotion and intensity of the moment. I know he said something about me being president of the students’ union, my plans to get a PhD, and that I thanked my daughters for their support and love and for being willing to be my guinea pigs. At that point I looked over at them, and they were smiling, cheering, so excited and happy for me. Lou Abrioux (wife of AU president Dominique) was in front of them and I could see that she too was caught up in the emotion, tears sparkling in her eyes.

As Dr. Davis finished the bio and repeated my name for the second time, this was my signal to rise, walk over to the President and AUGC Chair, shake hands, and collect my diploma. Registrar Gilbert Perras removed his hand from my shoulder and shook my hand to offer his congratulations. When I reached Dominique, he held out his hand and my diploma. I took my diploma, and began to shake his hand, but all at once a surging wave of happiness filled me, and in an impromptu break with protocol, I suddenly found myself putting my arms around him and joyfully hugging him! I repeated this with AUGC Chair Robert Fulton. It’s odd because I’m not normally a “huggy” sort of person – I just could not help myself! I had intended to turn towards the front and acknowledge my daughters, but although my progress across the stage had felt like I was in slow motion, all at once I found myself at the end of the stage. I turned back to see them waving and smiling at me from their seats. I briefly smiled back:and then my moment was over as the next graduate was announced.

More hugs awaited at the side of the stage where Carla and Shirley were handing out gifts, and then I finally returned to my seat. Such a short walk, such a very few moments kneeling beside the registrar – but an experience that will remain within my heart and mind forever. Next to the birth of my daughters, it was the proudest, most thrilling moment of my life.

I sat, bemused, for much of the next while. I was trying to concentrate and take mental notes for my article, but I was having a hard time doing so. Finally I remembered that I had something in my hand, and I looked down at my diploma for the first time. Although I had managed to hold back the tears up until that moment, seeing my name on that piece of paper brought them to the forefront. All those all-night long study sessions, all the times I had neglected my family, the times when I was so tired and brain dead that I thought I could not possibly go on – here was my reward!

I finally managed to pull myself together, although I still don’t recall much of the rest of the ceremony. I do remember Alan Davis reading a bio in which the graduate said she was looking forward to relaxing and watching the Vicki Gabereau show. Vicki was sitting in front of me and did a bit of a double-take at that. A little later another student’s bio said the same thing, and everyone became somewhat suspicious – a suspicion that was confirmed later when Alan Davis said he had asked permission of the students to change their comment from “watching TV” to “watching Vicki Gabereau”. But it added warmth and humour to the proceedings and drew Ms. Gabereau into the ceremony, providing an excellent lead-in to the presentation of her honorary degree.

The address by graduate was given by Ramona DeRose, B.Admin [read Ramona’s address in this issue of The Voice]. Ramona was very excited and enthusiastic as she spoke about her experience, the patience her young son showed with her studies, and what the achievement meant to her. I could identify with her comments when she spoke of how she had hesitated to embark upon a university venture that she might not complete until she was forty years old. A friend asked her to consider where she would be at forty years old if she didn’t do it. The same had occurred with me, and my friend had motivated me and removed my hesitations just as Ramona’s friend did for her.

Then Vicki Gabereau was presented with her doctorate, followed by her speech. She spoke of how difficult she had found school, and how unusual it was for someone like her to have become such a success in broadcasting. She said she had just been in the right place at the right time, and commented how different it was nowadays since all media jobs require a degree. This was not her first honorary degree, but she said it was her most treasured, since Athabasca is a favorite place of hers.

At the conclusion of her talk, Robert introduced me to present Dr. Gabereau with the gift on behalf of students (the same engraved photo-album given to Dr. Stollery). She opened it up and gleefully said, “I can put pictures here!” then turned and looked at me, noticing my hood and adding, “oh! She’s one of us!” I smiled and shook her hand and acknowledged that, yes, indeed, I was one of the graduates. Her sincerity and thanks for the gift was very touching.

Then the ceremony was over and we prepared to leave the stage. We filed back down the red carpet to the sound of warm and sustained applause. None of us could stop smiling as we exited the tent to walk the red carpet under the canopy, surrounded by the “honour guard” of governing council members, university department heads and academics. I now knew what it felt like to take that walk, and felt thrilled and humbled as I realized the significance of the honour guard. They were paying us the highest accolade as they welcomed us – the new graduates and degree-holders – into their academic community.

“The educated differ from the uneducated as much as the living from the dead.”
Aristotle.

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.

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