It does not take more than a few minutes attending the Athabasca University Convocation to see just what sets AU apart from other universities.
One of the first things I noticed was how many graduates had travelled from all over the world to be there, many more than at brick-and-mortar university ceremonies. Since AU is a distance learning institution, very few students ever visit a campus, and most of the graduates that make the journey to convocation are seeing the AU campus and meeting the staff in person for the first time. I spoke to students who had come from all over Canada, from the Yukon Territories to the Maritimes. I spoke to students who had come from various places in the United States, a student living in Asia, and one from South Africa. Most of the graduates had traveled hundreds of miles to walk across the stage, and many with families or friends that traveled to see them graduate as well.
There is excitement and pride in the air as the graduates and their families tour the grounds, taking pictures in front of some of the campus landmarks like the fountains in front of the main building. Everyone who visits marvels at how beautiful the campus is, embedded amidst the spruce, pine, and aspen trees of the Athabasca River Valley. Many of them did not even realize the campus existed until now, and a few students told me that being here made their degree with AU seem all the more “real”.
Wandering around the booths set up in the arena, visitors could buy AU clothes, merchandise, and fresh cut flowers; they could visit with various Faculties and Alumni Affairs at their booths and (most importantly, of course!), they could visit with the staff and council presidents of AUSU and AUGSA at the union booths, which were located right inside the entrance. Most of the graduates were just excited to talk to the staff and faculty in person for the first time. In return, the staff, professors, and faculty were just as elated to see the students, the one time of year they get to meet them in person and truly celebrate their students’ success.
Working at the AUSU booth, many of the graduates and even AU staff thanked us for just being present. Numerous students told us about how a scholarship we granted them was the only reason they were able to get their degree, or how much our student planner had helped them keep themselves organized. It was enlightening to hear!
What is also amazing about meeting the graduates is the incredible range in demographics and backgrounds. At brick-and-mortar universities, undergrad graduates tend to be primarily in their mid-20’s, having achieved their degrees right out of high school. Certainly, that demographic is well represented with young graduates proudly facing their first taste of life free from school, but there is also a huge range of other demographics graduating, far more than you typically find with other universities. Here you meet 30, 40, and 50 year old moms and dads who worked on their degree from home while juggling full time jobs and kids. Here you meet army recruits who worked on their classes while they were oversees. Here you meet senior citizens who completed their first degree when they retired to reach a new milestone in their lives. Here you meet people who live in such a remote region or town that they could not attend a local University. Here you meet people from every age, gender, and culture that were able to complete their degree amidst busy lives, careers, personal struggles, and, in some cases, immense obstacles.
Here there are just as many proud children coming to see their parents graduate as there were proud parents coming to see their kids graduate.
Here students are grateful beyond words that Athabasca University’s distance learning gave them the flexibility and opportunity to get a degree they otherwise would not have been able to achieve.
The next thing that sets the AU convocation apart from that of other Universities is how intimate and personal the ceremony is. At most universities, graduates are called across the stage with a simple recitation of their name and degree. At AU, however, they embrace the fact that each graduate has a story to tell. When graduates are called across the stage, the audience is told their story, so that everyone watching can truly see how amazing each of these students are. You get to hear the stories of triumphs they achieved, how their family or friends supported them, publications and awards they won, or how their work is already helping people or changing the world. In some cases, you also get to hear stories of perseverance over incredible hardship?such as the story of a graduate who struggled to overcome homelessness to achieve his degree. Each students’ story is told, and each one is an inspiration.
Good for you, graduates. Each one of you is a testament to AU and the benefits of distance learning. More importantly, each one of you is a testament to personal achievement and perseverance. You are our future, and we could not be more proud.
Donette Kingyens is a writer, animal lover, and advocacy junkie in Edmonton, Alberta. She is the the office coordinator for AUSU.