It takes about an hour and a half to make the drive from Edmonton (the nearest major city and airport) up to Athabasca. The scenery isn’t much to look at?mostly two-lane highway with grassy shoulders reaching out to mixed wood forests. But as you pass through the town of Athabasca, you begin to see AU banners. And as you drive up the hill that is University Drive, they begin to offer congratulations from every street light post. By the time you reach the Athabasca Regional Multiplex, you know You’re in for an exciting experience.
Convocation 2015 took place June 11-13th, with one ceremony taking place each day. Each year, Thursday’s ceremony is for grads from the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and Science and the Faculty of Science and Technology; Friday is for those from the Faculty of Health Disciplines, and Saturday is for those from the Faculty of Business.
The day begins with a hot breakfast and gowning for the ceremony participants. The buildings on campus are open, allowing students to wander at will, and see some of the departments they’ve communicated with through the course of their studies?like the very real, physical library, from whence all our little packages of books come! Soon, though, it is time for guests to find their seats, and grads to arrange themselves by program.
For the past few years, ASANI, an Aboriginal women’s trio, has lead the ceremony’s opening processional with drumming and song. When the last of the grads and platform party reaches their places on the stage, ASANI moves into Oh Canada, performing the anthem in English, French, and Cree. Their rendition is both beautiful and unsettling (you can listen on their website to see what I mean).
Marg Mrazek, Interim Chair of Athabasca University’s Board of Governors, offers the first welcome to graduands each day. Most of Mrazek’s comments sound like they’re taken directly from AU marketing materials: “for 45 years, Athabasca University has been and continues to be an open university; a virtual community dedicated to making it possible for anyone to pursue a postsecondary education? Athabasca University is recognized as a worldwide leader in online, open, postsecondary education.” She also took time, however, to congratulate the recipients of this year’s “1,469 undergraduate and graduate degrees,” noting that “the success of our students is the success of our university.”
Interim President Peter MacKinnon thanks grads for making the trip to attend Convocation, and stressed the importance of the occasion: “Of the hundreds of convocations, and there have been hundreds that I have attended over my career, this one stands out. It stands out because of its uniqueness, because it focuses upon you, our students and our graduates, and especially your stories.”
And then the graduands cross the stage, becoming graduates. Doctoral programs first, then Masters, then Bachelors. When RSVPing to attend Convocation, grads fill out a questionnaire about themselves and their time studying at AU, and from these answers, brief biographies are composed and read as each grad crosses the stage. It gives grads and guests (not only family and friends, but also members of the AU faculty, staff, and administration) a chance to get to know the grads, and hear about their struggles and successes.
On Thursday, MAIS graduate (and previous AU BA grad) Desi Valentine gave a particularly stirring address to graduates, discussing the skepticism with which others had viewed her studies at Athabasca University, and how some in her community felt that postsecondary would not be possible for her. Valentine stood before the crowd as recipient of the Governor General’s Gold Medal, an award for outstanding scholastic achievement. “We are the graduates of Athabasca University,” Valentine said. “There is no impossible for us!” The crowd immediately rose to their feet in a standing ovation.
Perhaps my favourite part of Convocation has always been the recessional. Piper Ted Soltys leads the way (because no ceremony is official or complete without bagpipes), and the AU faculty and tutors in attendance follow first. As they near the auditorium doors, the two columns of academics separate along each edge of the carpeted path. The grads then leave the stage and, after they walk down the centre aisle among the guests in attendance, they pass through between the rows of academics, who enthusiastically clap, cheer, and congratulate them.
And then more food! A huge thanks to Athabasca’s two student unions for supplying lunch after the convocation ceremony this year. Thursday’s lasagna was particularly delicious and plentiful. Lunch also gives grads the opportunity to mingle with other members of the AU community (fellow grads, academics, support staff, and even members of the executive and board) before they begin their respective trips home.
Convocation 2015 was a time to celebrate the successes of AU students. Those who have completed their degrees can serve as an inspiration to all the students still chipping away at courses and wondering if they’ll ever finish. As Desi Valentine noted, there may be challenges along our educational paths, but we are AU students, and “there is no impossible for us!”
Bethany Tynes completed her MA in Integrated Studies through AU, and is a Canadian politics junkie.