Convocation Report, 2005 – Part 2

The Voice Magazine’s coverage of Convocation 2005 continues with reports from the grounds and more photos. Keep watching next week as our coverage continues…

This year’s AU convocation experience went something like this:

Wednesday, June 8, 7:00 P.M. – The university grounds are a sea of relative calm. Most of the staff have already left their offices for the day, but workers are bustling around doing last minute set-ups, placing chairs, tacking down the red carpet, hanging dozens of flower arrangements. Weather is breezy and clear, promising sunny skies. As I leave for the evening, I glance around at the empty entranceway, hearing the fountains splashing, knowing that in 12 hours the area will be filled with excited graduands and their friends and family.

Thursday, June 9, 8:30 A.M. – I arrive at the university for the first day of convocation. Weather is comfortably cool and slightly cloudy. Parking attendants are already in place, directing a slow but steady stream of vehicles. Walking past the breakfast tent, I can smell the tantalizing aroma of pancakes and sausage. Groups of new arrivals are gradually filling up the long tables, enjoying the breakfast co-sponsored with AUSU.

Thursday, June 9, 9:00 A.M. – I head to the office of the soon-to-be-installed new president, Frits Pannekoek, for our scheduled 9 AM interview. In contrast to the evening before, the university is now humming with quiet activity. Although this day will be hectic and full of official events, Frits is calm and collected as we talk (see interview in next week’s Voice). By the time we exit the office, the outer room is filled with people and the hum of activity outside has escalated.

Thursday, June 9, 10:00 A.M – Walking back over to the breakfast tent in search of some potential interviewees, I take a quick side excursion through the convocation tent. It feels coolly hollow, empty, yet vibrating with invisible anticipation. I look up at the chairs on the stage, remembering how it felt to be among the graduates up there, and that indescribable moment, crossing the stage as your name reverberates roundly through the tent. I note where I’ll be sitting this year, in the front row next to the University photographer.

Thursday, June 9, 10:30 A.M – The breakfast tent is shaded and cool, the long tables dotted with groups of students and their families. A long dessert table stretches across the centre of the tent along one side, marked by a tall structure that resembles a wedding cake, but darker. It isn’t until much later that I wander over and realize that this structure is actually a chocolate fountain – bubbling with liquid chocolate in which partakers can dip a variety of sliced fruit – strawberries, melons, grapes, and cantaloupe. An eager line-up forms to test out the appetizing treat, but it’s messy business, and little trails of chocolate have formed all around the edge of the table (and on a few shirt fronts!).

Thursday, June 9, 11:00 A.M – After completing a few interviews, I notice that the tent has become quite empty, as students start to head over to the main building, aware that they must be robed and in place by 11:30. I follow them, taking pictures and looking for a few more students I can talk to. In the long side hallway, graduands are lined up in their black robes, while platform beadles* and ushers ensure that everyone is in place. One graduand is seated outside in the hallway with her husband and daughter, and agrees to a brief interview. However, before we can get started, the assistant registrar comes along, insists that she must go and line up, and reprimands me mildly – reminding me that everyone is stressed and under time pressure at this point. I can certainly feel the tension, and knowing how tightly choreographed every minute is, head back outside to wait for the procession to begin.
*beadle: a minor parish official whose duties include ushering and preserving order at services and sometimes civil functions (Websters)

Thursday, June 9, 11:35 A.M – I’m back at the university entrance, taking more pictures. The academics and governing council are gradually getting into position. Registrar Gilbert Perras is already holding the mace in readiness, and he poses for a picture in front of the welcome sign. I notice the young piper pacing nervously back and forth in front, and stop to talk. Her name is Meghan Grasby, 18 years old, and this is her first official bagpipe performance. Like last year’s piper (and so many other young workers at the university), she is second-generation AU; her mom works in the registrar’s office. Everyone is reassuring her that she will be great, as she smiles bravely and poses for our pictures (see last week’s issue, interviews feature).

Thursday, June 9, 11:50 A.M – I notice that some graduands have not picked up their name tags from the welcome table. Suddenly there is a flurry of activity, and one of the volunteers asks me to run back to the graduand line-up to advise that another student has just arrived and is running to get robed in time. I head back with the message, just as they are going through the grad list a final time. Later I heard that this student had a flat tire on the way up, and I can’t imagine what a sense of panic she must have felt, thinking she would miss her convocation!

Thursday, June 9, 11:55 A.M – Everyone is in place, and I see Gilbert make his way to the centre point. This is the middle of a “T-intersection” – standing in front of the university. To the right hand side is the library door, behind which the graduands are lined up down a long hallway; behind is the main university doors, where all the academics, governing council and the platform party are lined up; over to the left is the long, covered red-carpet walkway leading to the tent.

Thursday, June 9, 12:00 P.M – When Gilbert is standing at attention at centre, the piper at his right, I hear the first tones of the bagpipes and, “we’re off”. The piper then leads the graduands down the red-carpet walkway into the tent, up the aisle and onto the stage, where they take their seats. Once all the black-robed graduands have passed by, the blue-robed governing council members follow. Next come the academics in their multi-coloured robes, hats and hoods, each colour representing their various degrees and universities they graduated from. Bringing up the rear is the president, vice-president academic (who will read the bios and introduce the grads), and AUGC chair.

Thursday, June 9, 12:10 P.M – We all remain standing while Oh Canada is sung, then take our seats. Convocation begins, with the installation of the new president and greetings from other universities and the government (see last week’s Voice).

Thursday, June 9, 12:30 P.M – Acting Vice-President Academic, Deitmar Kennepohl, invites the candidates to “please rise.” As the sea of black-robed graduates rise, the rumble of their feet hitting the stage sends out a thrilling vibration, and the audience breaks out into applause. Dietmar presents The Petition, “that these graduands, having fulfilled all the requirements of the statutes of Athabasca University” be admitted “to the degrees to which they are entitled.” The chair grants the petition. The president then addresses the candidates with The Pledge, asking, among other things, if they “promise to use the knowledge, skills, and wisdom you have acquired to the enhancement of the reputation of the University, for the advancement of learning, and for the betterment of all?” The candidates answer the Pledge in unison, then the Chair addresses the graduands to admit them into the degree “to which you are entitled.” The formality of the words and ceremony touches me, reinforcing in me the great importance and value of this graduation achievement.

Thursday, June 9, 12:45 P.M – Graduates are presented to the audience, each one crossing to centre stage to kneel beside the registrar. He arranges the hood over their shoulders, a different colour for each program, then his hand rests gently on their shoulder as the VPA reads a short individual bio. The graduate then rises and receives his or her degree from the president, shaking hands with the president, AUGC chair, and a program representative, then crosses to the other side of the stage to return to their seat.

The bios are part of what makes AU’s graduation so unique and special, a chance to hear a little bit about each student, their struggles, their goals, their hopes and plans. As cameras flashed, each kneeling student would savour their moment proudly, sometimes smiling, sometimes blinking back tears, sending out loving looks at family in the audience, or joining in with laughter at some humourous bio comment. Bios contain thank-you’s to family, special tutors, fellow students. I’m struck by the number of times I hear comments about the wonderful friendships made – considering this is a distance university! With graduate studies, of course, In listening to the MDE student bios, the thought occurs to me that many of these students will be part of AU’s future, educators in distance learning. Many have plans to go on to a master’s or doctoral degree. The comments in the bios are something all AU students can relate to:

“In 7 years that it took me to complete my degree I got older!”
“Thanks to my family for patience, patience, patience”
“…never forget the sense of community”
“:love sleeping in on Saturday morning, almost as much as I love my degree”
“…looking forward to growing up and finding a real job”
“thanks to my tutors for extensions!”
“no one is too old to learn, or to take a 3-hour exam!”
“… the feeling of achieving a life goal, even though it is later than expected”

Thursday June 9, 2:00 P.M. – The degrees have all been presented, and we hear today’s Address by Graduate, Doreen Stewart of Calgary Alberta. She talks about the privilege of being able to speak and reminisces about papers, projects, 3-hour final exams. She shares her new motto: “the mills of the gods grind slowly but unusually fine.” Doreen suggests that to achieve a distance degree you require “persistence and a penchant for pain.” Thanking friends and family, Doreen offers this apology, “sorry about the coffee cups growing mold, the reheated pizza, the dusty pacifiers,” and relates her son’s comment, when he saw her seated at the table, surrounded by books, “Mom, if you get any mark greater than a pass, you are studying too much!” Doreen adds that when asked why she was doing it, she would respond, “if you don’t input data, there is no output.” She concludes with words of encouragement, stating, “be the best you can be, you know you can, you just did it!”

Thursday, June 9, 2:30 P.M. – There was to be an honorary degree recipient, Romeo Dallaire. However, his schedule did not permit him to attend, and since the degree can only be awarded if the recipient accepts in person, this part of the ceremony is cancelled.

Thursday, June 9, 2:35 P.M. -The degrees have been presented, formalities conclude, and the audience rises so the candidates can leave. The academics walk out first, forming an honour guard at the sides of the red carpet, applauding enthusiastically as the beaming graduates make their way back out of the tent, proudly holding that piece of paper they have worked so hard for. Smiling, they embrace family and friends, posing for pictures in front of the flowers, or the fountains, or with one of the academics. The area is alive with chatter and excitement as the graduates wind down.

Thursday, June 9, 3:00 P.M. – I make my way again to the food tent, where Alumni Affairs has set up a reception and lunch. I try to get a few more interviews before the graduates rush off, most facing a long journey back home.