Convocation Report, 2005 – Conclusion

The Voice Magazine’s coverage of Convocation 2005 concludes with reports from the grounds and more photos.

Friday, June 10, 11:00 A.M. – After lingering over a morning coffee with my hosts and some other AU people, I arrive at the university only an hour before ceremonies begin. The atmosphere is much busier today, and few people are lingering at the breakfast tent. Today it is mostly nursing graduates, and they have arranged class pictures and group meetings that keep them busy before and after convocation.

Friday, June 10, 11:30 A.M – I wander around, taking a few more pictures. I stop to chat at the alumni table, checking out the rings. At the merchandise table I admire the AU stuffed animals with their miniature graduation hats – we don’t wear the traditional flat hat at AU, but they make a great souvenir nonetheless.

Friday, June 10, 11:45 A.M. – I notice several former members of AUGC (AU Governing Council) that I recognize, and we exchange greetings and hugs. They advise me that they had come for a special “meet the new president” reception the previous evening. I was particularly pleased to see former AUGC chair Robert Fulton and his wife, and I realized how much I missed him in that role.

Friday, June 10, 11:50 A.M – Dr. Bruce Spencer, Acting Director Arts and Science, beckons me over. He has an elderly black lady on his arm and he introduces me to her — it is Gwendolyn Hooks, honorary degree recipient. I feel pleased to meet her and tell her so — she responds that she feels surprised and thrilled that she is being honoured in this manner.

Friday, June 10, 11:55 A.M – Everyone is lined up again, just as the day before. This time I take a spot on the other side of the “T”, hoping for some pictures from a different vantage point. The weather is cloudier today, threatening rain. I hope it will hold off. While chatting with some AU staff, I’m told the story of a student who took a cab from the airport — not realizing how far Athabasca was from Edmonton! That must have been quite a cab fare! *(Note: Athabasca is about 150 kms from Edmonton)

Friday, June 10, 12:00 P.M – The procession is off again. The piper seems a little more confident in her role today, and the group is much larger than Thursday’s — there are a lot of nursing graduates! I had noticed this the previous year, for some reason AU’s nursing students seem to all show up for convocation. This year several busloads had come up from Calgary, students who were in the Mount Royal collaborative nursing program. I was surprised later to discover that many of these students had not taken any distance courses. Although they didn’t really fit the profile of the typical AU student, they seemed very excited to be there.

Friday, June 10, 12:10 P.M – The ceremony has started, everyone is seated, and special guests are introduced. Among them, the president of the Canadian Nursing Association, Deb Tamlyn; former AUGC members Robert Fulton and Herb Belcourt, Frank Appleby (Saturday’s honorary degree recipient), and Wayne & Terry Hooks, children of Gwendolyn Hooks. Deb Tamlyn, in her welcome, spoke about the “thirst for knowledge and learning” that was satisfied by students in “other countries” or “on ships across the ocean” or part of collaborative programs such as the Mount Royal one.

Friday, June 10, 12:15 P.M – The president gives his welcome. This is now the second of three times I will hear this welcome, and he begins by sharing some statistics about the university. I can’t help but feel he is a bit overwhelmed by these numbers, excited about the potential of the university he has just become such an important part of. He spoke of the challenge he had received from Deb Tamlyn to soon have a doctorate in nursing at AU. He concludes by saying, “it’s an exciting time to be the president of the fastest-growing, dynamic university, Canada’s university of the future”

Friday, June 10, 12:25 P.M – The graduands are now lined up at the side of the stage, ready for their moment.

The bios were a highlight, once again. It might have been the nature of the Master of Nursing program, and the fact that most of the Bachelor of Nursing students attended a regular classroom, but there was a much closer camaraderie among the students, and many comments about great, unforgettable friendships. A lot of these graduates were already well-established in careers, having already been RNs for many years. Quite a few spoke about going on to doctoral studies, teaching, publishing. Many spoke about the importance of providing an example to their children. One graduate, whose mother is also an AU student, prompted laughter from the audience, recounting how her son observed the book-covered table at Christmas and asked, “didn’t grandma finish school either?” Another managed to complete three courses while he was deployed twice to Afghanistan. The bios show that the AU student experience is still the same in many ways – we study anywhere, fitting our studies in-between life events.

On friendships:
“thanks to my friends for a shoulder to cry on”
“…strong bond with my classmates despite the fact that I never heard their voices”
“…always remember the virtual relationships”
“my virtual friends enhanced the learning experience”
“developed amazing new virtual partnerships”
“I made many friends I have yet to see face-to-face”
“great friends made along the way”
“keep in my heart the friendships”
“met some amazing people while completing my degree”

On personal growth:
“… never forget the excitement of opening each new course and the relief of mailing the last assignment”
“studying helped me bury the pain from an injury”
“…great to connect with other health professionals from around the globe”
“…became very efficient at time management”
“the inspiration received from professors and classmates”
“taking classes with people from all over the world!”
“proud to be the first in my family with a degree”
“discipline of working on course, after course, after course – for 15 years”
“always remember mentoring other students”
“the profs remembered my name!”
“gave up tickets for a Stanley cup final to study for stats!”
“figured out how to fit 30 hours of work into 24!”

On family support:
“…daughters allowed me to monopolize the computer on weekends”
“my kids had to remind me that A-minus is still a good mark!”
“my son said, ‘you are out of your mind if you think I’ll ever study as hard as you do!'”
“they stayed up with me to meet deadlines”
“thrilled to go back to university alongside my two children”
“a never ending source of encouragement”
“my family and friends would not let me give up”

On future plans:
“…smell the flowers and pursue a doctorate”
“plan to teach and pursue doctorate studies”
“look forward to publishing papers”
“will take some time to get used to having free time”
“travel as a nurse…I can nurse anywhere in the world!”
“look forward to the freedom of being done”
“become a doctor”
“nice to finally have some money”
“go on my honeymoon”
“enjoy a life with paycheques, not papers!”

Friday, June 10, 2:20 P.M – There seem to be a LOT of nurses! As enjoyable as the bios were, the audience was starting to appear a bit restless. The wind is picking up outside, and the first rattle of raindrops strike the tent. Along with everyone else, my eyes drift upward, hoping the storm will hold off.

Friday, June 10, 2:30 P.M – Address by Graduate, Karen Stauffer, Master of Science and Information Systems and recipient of the Governor General’s Gold Medal (photo of Karen delivering her address appears in the previous issue).

Karen started out with a Bachelor of Nursing, took one class and switched to computing science. She spoke about the AU student experience – studying across the world, aboard an aircraft carrier, in downtown Dubai; trying to add yet one more thing to a long list of priorities; planning busy lives around final assignments. She spoke of finding creative ways to complete studies – on a plane, on a bus, while waiting at the doctor, long hours late into the night. Graduates shared in laughter when she commented on “exam panic” – opening the booklet and realizing that it was much worse than anticipated! On behalf of the graduates, she expressed gratitude to all those who had supported their studies.

Friday, June 10, 2:40 P.M – Dr. Bruce Spencer presents Gwendolyn Hooks, who will receive an Honorary Degree, Doctor of Letters, in recognition of her “contribution to the history of black settlers in Alberta and her promotion of learning. He begins to provide some background to her story.

Friday, June 10, 2:41 P.M – The rattle of raindrops picks up. Within minutes the tent resounds with repeated hammering, the rain creating a rebounding echo that threatens to obscure the sound system.

Friday, June 10, 2:42 P.M – In spite of the hammering on the tent ceiling, Bruce continues with the story. It is an extremely interesting one, relating how Gwen settled in the Keystone community (now called Breton, in the area of Wildwood and Barrhead). Her family left the U.S. to escape oppression and Jim Crow laws, becoming part of a small black pioneer community. Gwen blazed many trails and defied many black stereotypes. She was the only black teacher in Alberta in 1941, her first assignment Athabasca. Bruce went on to describe many of the experiences Gwen and her family had, including the establishment of a museum in Breton. The audience was brought to tears when a clip of Maria Dunn played – a tune Maria had written for Gwen, with the line “hardly a welcome for a black pioneer, but hard times come with freedom here.”*

The introduction is lengthy, but has the audience at rapt attention. Although Gwendolyn had been standing since first introduced, her 85-years begin to take their toll and she has to sit down again.

Friday, June 10, 2:55 P.M – The rain slows down to a quiet patter, just as Gwendolyn Hooks is brought forward to be robed and receive her degree. She is presented to the audience as “Dr. Hooks” and she takes the podium to a standing ovation.

Friday, June 10, 3:00 P.M – Gwen says, “I don’t have much to say – Bruce said it all!” She reiterates a bit of the story, how she wanted to be free of hardships, able to be free and be educated. On seeing her mother working on hands and knees, she was motivated to vow that she would only do this “on my own floor.” Voice breaking, she related, “my mother told me, Gwen, you are going to be a teacher,” adding, “in those days, you listened to your parents.” In 1997, Gwen became involved in community activism, promoting the role of black pioneers, and went on to publish her husband’s recollection of the role black pioneers had in molding Alberta history, The Keystone Legacy. Her motto – “never too old to learn.”

It is clear that the decision to award an honorary degree to Gwendolyn Hooks is an inspired one. The audience gives her a second standing ovation as she leaves the podium.

*read more about Gwendolyn Hooks at:
Liepins, L. (2005, June 10). Book on black history brings author honours: Gwendolyn Hooks told story of pioneers. Edmonton Journal, B3.

Friday, June 10, 3:00 P.M – There is nothing more to say, and AUGC chair David Burnett calls the ceremony to a close, suggesting that we “all sit and reflect” on what we have just heard.

Friday, June 10, 3:10 P.M – The graduate procession leaves the tent and the grads congregate outside to take pictures, the skies now bright and sunny.

Saturday, June 11, 10:00 A.M – It is the third and final day. Even though I had expected some tired faces, amazingly, everyone seems just as happy as the first day, eager to welcome another group of grads yet again. The energy level is high and everyone is smiling.

Saturday, June 11, 10:10 A.M – I find several family groups enjoying breakfast in the tent, and interview a few.

Saturday, June 11, 10:50 A.M – I wander out to the grounds around the university, taking pictures. I notice a large group of academics gathering by the fountain. Bruce Spencer is there and he introduces me to a few. As we are chatting, one of the program directors comes up and I admire her colours. She does the same to another academic. I’m struck by the humour of the situation — all these academics standing around admiring what each other is wearing! But the robes are truly wonderful, a proud and colourful declaration of each individual’s academic achievement and pride in their home university. They all move over toward the side of the fountain for a large staff picture.

Saturday, June 11, 12:00 P.M – Convocation begins. The grad line up and the sense of pent-up excitement is the same as the last two days, although perhaps tinged with a slight relief, knowing this is the last time we do this until next year.

Saturday, June 11, 12:10 P.M – Welcoming speeches. This is the third time I’ve heard the president’s speech, but he again manages to interject some new observations. He seems really pleased to be part of this, clearly impressed by what he has seen over the past few days.

Saturday, June 11, 12:20 P.M – MP for Athabasca, Mike Cardinal, brings greetings from the government. I’m surprised, since this is the first time in my memory that he has remained at convocation for the ceremony. I assume it has something to do with today’s honorary degree recipient, Frank Appleby, who is a former politician and landowner from Athabasca.

Saturday, June 11, 12:25 P.M – The first graduate walks across the stage to receive her MBA – Janet Allen, who has a baby due in 5 days!!

Saturday, June 11, 12:30 P.M – Once again, the audience is treated to a succession of graduates and bios, wonderful stories, similar to those of the nurses the day before, similar to those of the graduates on Thursday, but still different, individual. The MBAs include many professionals, a professor in a school of business, an honorary consul of Peru, director of the YMCA. Many comment on the great friendships made, how much they appreciated the opportunity to work with students from a diversity of backgrounds all over the country, the impact of true global learning. One graduate started his studies while in Cambodia, another had a heart attack a few days before finishing his final paper. There were the same fond looks into the audience, smiles and tears. Two excited small children haunted the front of the stage waiting for dad, camera in hand. Some bio highlights:

“:wanted this degree for 20 years, now I realize there is much more to learn”
“enjoyed the online interaction with other students”
“I’ll remember the diversity of backgrounds of fellow students”
“good friends who helped me maintain a sense of humour during tears over stats!”
“the advantage of working with cohorts from around the country and the world”
“meeting students from everywhere, learning lessons from them”
“you can never know too much!”
“never forget the virtual groups”
“…the intensity of the program…long days and hard work”
“never forget the depth and breadth of student cohort’s knowledge and experience”
“loved meeting fellow students”
“diverse group of students who were actual business professionals AND moms and dads!”
“people I met and got to know better than ever thought possible in an online format”
“look forward to drinking a beer in the backyard without the guilt of a waiting assignment”
“show my kids that learning is life-long”
“each course brings you a step closer to your goals”

The presentation of the MBAs ends with an exceptionally long applause. I had noticed this in previous years. Perhaps it’s partly because, like the nursing grads, so many of the MBA students attend their convocation. But I think it’s also because AU’s MBA is such a well-respected degree.

Saturday, June 11, 2:30 P.M – All the degrees have been awarded, and Wendy Christenson, MBA, gives the address by graduate. Like the other graduates who had this honour, Wendy describes the AU student experience and how much this degree means. She refers to Aristotle, “roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet” and concludes by saying “teachers can open the door, but you must enter yourself. We might enter alone, but we learn a wealth of knowledge from others”

Saturday, June 11, 2:40 P.M – Former president Dominique Abrioux comes forward to present the final honorary degree recipient, Frank Appleby. He describes how Frank was born in a log cabin south of Athabasca, going on to become an educator with foresight and a life-long commitment to education, including a BGS from Athabasca University in 1994. Frank retired from politics in 1986, but not before playing a key role in the future of Athabasca University. It was Frank who coined the phrase, “bring Athabasca University home to Athabasca,” actively lobbying to have the university moved to that location, arguing against those who would have had it established in St. Albert or elsewhere.

I couldn’t help but shake my head at hearing all of this. I clearly recalled the outrage when Athabasca University was moved 145 KMs north to this small town back in 1984. Many belittled the mantra, “bring Athabasca University home to Athabasca” since the name of the university had nothing at all to do with the town, and many actively disagreed with the ultimate decision (ed. hence AU is titled “Athabasca University” as opposed to the now common misnomer, “University of Athabasca”). The upset of the move to Athabasca caused resignations from the governing board and management, loss of staff, and a great deal of controversy. I know there are still many who feel the decision was a mistake, one that has hampered AU’s ability to perform in a global marketplace. I had no doubt that some in the audience were likely observing the awarding of this degree with some cynicism, given Frank’s key role in moving the university to its current location.

Saturday, June 11, 2:50 P.M – with the awarding of the honorary degree, the ceremony comes to a close and we file out, lining the red carpet the final time to welcome the new graduates.

Once again, Athabasca University has shown that when it comes to convocation – nobody does it better!

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