Once again, I had the privilege of attending Athabasca University’s crown jewel performance – Convocation 2004. The university catch phrase most often heard regarding convocation is “this is why we are here,” and you truly get a sense that convocation is the highlight of the year, the reason why the university exists. Every time I attend convocation I am struck anew by the honour bestowed by the university on its students, the unique way that Athabasca University graduates are individually acknowledged in this ceremony, cherished and valued. Last year I had the ultimate honour of attending my own convocation, and it was an unforgettable experience.
Certainly there may be many valid reasons why a student may choose not to attend their convocation, particularly if they are graduating from a traditional university where students are quickly herded across the stage and granted their diploma as just one more faceless student in an indifferent crowd of thousands. Not so Athabasca University students. The AU ceremony properly recognizes the hard work and accomplishment our degree represents to us, and each graduate is respectfully acknowledged. A student who skips their AU convocation is missing out on an experience of a lifetime.
This year I participated in convocation as a member of Governing Council once again, and it allowed me to see the process from yet another perspective. Last year I was on stage, receiving my degree. This year I was in the front row watching my fellow students receive theirs – but now it was different. This year I knew exactly how it felt to cross the stage, to kneel and receive my hood, to hear the words spoken by the VP Academic that made each graduate a real person. This year I proudly wore my own hood over my governing council gown, as I joined the other academics in welcoming the newly graduated.
I also was thrilled to have an old friend on stage graduating. We had lost touch some years ago, only to find each other again when he became an AU student and discovered me on the AUSU website. Over the last year we’ve compared student experiences. He told me that he had been wavering, unsure whether he would actually attend convocation, but after reading my report of my own convocation last year, he realized that this was something he could not miss.
There were a few changes to the ceremonies from previous years. They switched the undergraduate degrees to Friday and the graduate to Saturday, and moved the starting time to noon instead of 1 PM. This was done to accommodate a very special graduate event on Saturday evening – the celebration of the 10 year anniversary of the MBA program. Because of the earlier start, no AUSU breakfast was held. Instead, a delicious AUSU-sponsored brunch was hosted inside the university, and a separate, equally delicious, “Taste of Athabasca” brunch was set up under tents in an area away from the university.
This was the one disappointment for me this year. For the first time, graduands were separated from their families. Upon entering the university, they would register, and family members were given a hand stamp. Graduands stayed inside the university and enjoyed the AUSU brunch, but family members were sent over to the tents outside for the Taste of Athabasca. The rationale was to reduce congestion inside the university, and this system also allowed the alumni table and the AU merchandise table to be set up in the front area instead of in the back robing area where they had been in previous years. Unfortunately, for me, it reduced some of the excitement of the event and marred the occasion. The hallways inside the university were strangely empty, right up to the moment the procession was scheduled to begin. Instead of being surrounded by excited family members who were proudly sharing the thrill of the occasion with their graduate-to-be, graduands wandered alone around the university looking somewhat lost; or sat by themselves on chairs, eating a solitary lunch while they waited for the signal to go don their robes. There was no buzz. No proud parents, spouses, children with cameras. No excited chatter. No sense of anticipation of the very special moment that was imminent. It felt anticlimactic, like nothing out of the ordinary was really happening. It felt wrong, somehow.
I remember working at the welcoming table one year, bemused by how every member of the family would answer “yes!” when I asked an individual if they were graduating. Families are key to the uniqueness of the Athabasca University experience – indeed, many said in their bios that they felt their spouses should receive honourary degrees, and almost all credited their families with giving them the strength and motivation to succeed in this achievement. To separate the families from the graduands diminished the day. The inconvenience of a crowded hallway for an hour is a small price to pay when compared with letting families share the moment with their loved one. I hope the university will re-think this arrangement and keep families and graduands together again next year.
Last year the heat was sweltering, and I confess I was hoping for an overcast day, knowing how uncomfortable it can be to wear those robes on stage for three hours when the temperature goes up. Fortunately both days were overcast and cool. Rain threatened, but held off for the most part, except for a few minutes during Saturday’s event. Because convocation is held in a giant “circus” tent, rain can be problematic, since the pounding of water on canvas can drown out even the best speaker system.
As we lined up for the procession on Friday in our blue robes, I felt the familiar excitement start to build. Over to my right was a sea of black-gowned graduands, some restlessly pacing back and forth, some standing in contemplative thought, others smiling for the ubiquitous cameras. You could feel an underlying electric current energizing the whole area. Gilbert Perras, Registrar, stood in counterpoint to both lines, the ceremonial mace over his shoulder, ready to give the signal for the piper to start. This year marked the debut of a new piper, young Leif Anderson. Leif is second-generation Athabasca University. His father, Dr. Terry Anderson, is a professor of Distance Education, who holds one of AU’s Canada Research Chairs. Dr. Anderson also had the privilege of introducing the honorary degree recipient, Dr. Tony Bates.
As one of the shortest people on Governing Council, I was at the front of the line. Gilbert Perras turned to advise us that since everything was so well-organized we were a few minutes ahead of schedule. With a deep breath, the piper stepped forward and played the first few notes, and the graduands were off! (As a side note, I finally learned last year why AU uses the term “graduands.” It comes from the British tradition and means “one about to graduate”).
We followed the black-robed graduands down the red carpet into the tent, surrounded by cameras and smiling faces. Behind us came the colourful procession of academics. Many wore the mark of their own graduation – a particular robe, a hood of a certain colour, a hat, a tassel. Each of these symbols represents an achievement, an acceptance into the world of academia. I was proud to wear my own hood, to be able to announce to the world that I, too, was an Athabasca University graduate!
We all reached our seats, and “Oh Canada” began. I got all choked up last year and could barely sing, and this year was no different. Avowing our loyalty as Canadians while awaiting our induction as graduates, seems to reinforce the ability we now have to really make a difference, to improve society as a whole through education.
Once we were all seated, convocation began. I thought it was rather odd that David Burnett, the newly-appointed Chair of Governing Council, was dressed in his suit, not robed. It didn’t dawn on me that this was part of the official ceremony until MLA Thomas Lukaszuk was introduced. Lukaszuk’s role was to introduce David Burnett and appoint him officially as the new Chair, at which point he was robed. David Burnett then addressed the crowd, followed by Dr. Abrioux, then the conferring of the degrees began.
Watching the faces and the body language of the new graduates tells quite the story. Because of AU’s very special individual acknowledgement of each graduate with a short bio, there is time to get to know a little bit about each individual, what they have gone through to graduate, and what this diploma means to them. Many gave credit to their families, sharing the diploma with those loved ones who had been so patient, supportive and sacrificing. As I listened, I knew the feelings and emotions that they were experiencing, and I watched them hold back tears when family members would shout out a “yeah mom” or a “go dad.” Some would search the audience as they walked towards centre stage, then smile broadly when they located their family in the crowd. Others seemed to be concentrating very hard on not losing their composure.
This year marked the first time the new VP Academic, Judith Hughes, had the task of introducing the graduates and reading their bios. She did an amazing job of pronouncing all the names correctly, using the same techniques Dr. Alan Davis used in his term as VP Academic – practice the names, talk to the graduand in advance, and write it down phonetically. This attention to detail really highlights the respectful way graduates are treated at AU.
Once all the graduates had received their degrees, the recipient of this year’s Governor General’s Silver Medal addressed the graduates. Her words reflected the shared experience of all. Then Dr. Terry Anderson introduced Dr. Tony Bates as the honorary degree recipient. Dr. Bates has a close connection to distance learning, having worked for 20 years at the British Open University, five years with the Open Learning Agency in B.C. and most recently the University of British Columbia as the Director of Distance Education and Technology, Continuing Studies. Dr. Anderson introduced him as “my hero,” in acknowledgement of the great contribution Dr. Bates has made to the mission of Athabasca University and the advancement of distance education.
In his discourse, Dr. Bates spoke directly to the graduates in one of the most relevant commentaries I’ve ever heard. It is reproduced on the AU website in its entirety, and it makes for inspirational reading. He really does “get it.” One of his comments in particular was very enlightening. He said that research conducted by the British Open University found that employers were far more likely to hire Open University graduates because their experience was that individuals who achieve their degree by distance learning had greater work experience and exhibited a much higher degree of determination and self-discipline. He encouraged graduates to keep their options open in this knowledge-based economy, since success will depend on life-long learning. Read his address at: http://www.athabascau.ca/frontpage/articles/batesaddress.htm
Finally the ceremony concluded with the recession. All remained standing, and the graduates remained on stage until the platform party, governing council and the academics all followed the piper back down the red carpet. We lined the sides of the red carpet to form an honour guard, a measure of respect and acceptance for the new graduates. As the first of the graduates reached the edge of the red carpet, we all burst into sustained applause until they had all left the tent, and no one could stop smiling!
The following day the process was repeated with the conferring of the master’s degrees. The ceremony is very similar in many ways, but there are differences. The graduates themselves tend to be, in the case of the MBA’s at least, business people who are already following a career path. One of the members of governing council commented to me that the participants in the undergrad ceremony were a picture of diversity – a snapshot of Canada itself. The graduate students, however, seemed somewhat older and more confident. In contrast to the undergrads where many did not come in person to receive their degrees, almost all the master’s students were in attendance. This particular group also seemed highly charged, far more energetic and excited. Perhaps this was partly due to the fact that this was the tenth anniversary of the MBA program (which represents the majority of the graduates). This year also saw the first graduate from the Master of Science – Information Systems, and two of the graduates were Athabasca University staff. The graduate ceremony was attended by representatives from Red Deer College and the University of Lethbridge. The latter’s brother was one of the MBA graduates, and he was extremely impressed with AU’s graduation, commenting that this year he had attended almost every ceremony across the province on behalf of his university and that AU’s was superior to all of them in the special way graduates were treated.
The stories of the struggles, however, were the same for both undergraduates and graduates. Both had put their lives and families on hold, working for their degree, and both gave credit to their loved ones for support and sacrifice. Both afternoons were filled with shared experience, humour, joy, and excitement.
The introduction of the Governor General’s Gold Medal recipient, Cynthia Marie Fediuk-Mombourquette (Master of Health Studies) brought an impromptu standing ovation from her fellow graduates on stage. The address by graduate, however, was given by another student, Gerrianne Martha Clare, since the graduate faculties rotate this honour. Dr. Anne Nothof then introduced the honorary degree recipient, Pamela Wallin. Ms. Wallin is well-known to many as a broadcast journalist, most recently appointed as Canadian Consul General to the U.S. Her address was well-spoken and thought-provoking. She spoke about the importance of the moment, how each would forever remember their graduation, and look back years from now with pride over what they will have accomplished. Ms. Wallin stated that “this degree is a tool to help you make different choices” because learning is about “knowing we can make a difference.” She exhorted grads to always make it matter. In commenting about her upbringing, one line in particular stayed with me. She said she was thankful to have grown up in a home where her mother taught her to speak her mind – but only when that mind was informed. Her concluding comment left me with food for thought, as she quoted the words of Sydney Harris, “regret for the things we do can be tempered by time. It is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable.” Ms. Wallin’s address is also reproduced on the AU website at: http://www.athabascau.ca/frontpage/articles/wallinaddress.htm
There was one odd happening during the midpoint of the ceremonies. A bird flew into the tent and became trapped, unable to find the exit. For an hour the poor little thing flew up and down, back and forth, flying up to the centre of the tent in a futile attempt to escape. I kept wondering if the bird would fly too low and set an unsuspecting audience member into a panic. Just before the end of the ceremony, the bird disappeared, apparently having finally found the way out. There was something highly symbolic about the whole event, as if the new graduates had been held back previously but would now be able to fly free as they exercised all the new opportunities afforded by their degree.
The second convocation concluded with the same procession and honour guard, and once again we celebrated the achievement of these graduates as they made their way back out of the tent across the red carpet. In all, over 300 students attended the two ceremonies, and everyone I spoke with agreed that it was the highlight of their experience at AU!
Photos, from top:
1-2) Graduation ceremony, view of the stage
3) The procession of academics makes its way to the tent
4) Tents in the trees house the Taste of Athabasca brunch for graduand’s families
5) Procession of graduates approaches the tent
6) Led by the piper, registrar Gilbert Perras carries the ceremonial mace.
All photos, Carla Benavides.
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.