As I write this the last group of students is getting set to walk through the crowd to the sound of beating drums. The drums that sent chills of excitement down my spine as I walked down that red carpet only a couple days ago. I watched the live stream last year and I couldn’t believe I was there living it, experiencing it. I scanned the crowd while trying to keep my knees steady as I walked, looking for my husband and mom in the crowd. I found them and was overcome with pride when I saw their smiles.

But, let’s back up a bit. I had had a long drive to get from here to there. With lunch stop included it took us approximately 13 hours. Knowing this, I wanted to get there a day ahead of time. I wanted to check out the campus, find where everything was, and take a day to relax before the big day. I am very happy I did. On the bonus day I toured the campus, I walked the grounds and poked through the main building. I went to the library and wandered the stacks looking for nothing but feeling the books around me. The grounds themselves were far more than I expected for an online university. They have taken the time to make them spectacular and I could see myself sitting on the benches in the quiet, studying?if I hadn’t already finished my studies. Perhaps the most spectacular part of the grounds were the memorial trees. These were unexpected. As I walked along the path I read the names and took in the tree planted behind them. It was inspiring that this school has such respect for its people that they take the time to put all of this together. I am thrilled that I am connected to these thoughtful people through AU.

The town of Athabasca was larger than I expected and held a history that I took my time exploring as I wandered through the park. I looked at the massive river and imagined the people traversing down it in small boats and canoes. We found, through the recommendation of the receptionist at our hotel, a gem of a restaurant in the 49th Street Grill. There were signs all around Athabasca welcoming the graduates to convocation. It made it feel like I was not entering a strange town but I was entering a place where I had attended school and they were excited to see the graduates descend upon their town.

Convocation day started early. I needed to get some coffee in my system to try to calm my nerves. I tried on a couple dresses I had brought along for the occasion, unable to decide before I left, and opted for one that would not show beneath the gown. It was pouring rain as we pulled up to the grounds; we were first met by a lady wearing her rain coat and directing traffic. We followed her directions and were then met by man, drenched by the rain, helping to direct. He advised that my husband could drop us off at the front door before parking. Perfect, I thought as I watched the rain. Much to my surprise as we pulled up another gentleman walked up to the truck umbrella in hand and kept myself and my mother dry as we walked into the doors. He laughed and told me not to look at the umbrella as he wasn’t sure where they had found it; this was “a last second decision” to help graduates get into the building without looking like they had gone for a swim. I felt like a movie star as I walked under the umbrella held by someone else.

The organization and guidance did not stop there. Next I was greeted by a fellow grad who worked for AU and was going to be graduating in the following days. She showed me where everything was and chatted with me like we had been friends for years, my nerves impeded my memory though, and I cannot recall her name. Every step was mapped out and if I stood there looking lost for too long someone would come up and ask me if I needed help, guide me to where I needed to go. As someone who guided me to my seat stated: everything was organized with military precision. And it was. From the gowning to the pictures and walking up there was someone there to ask, to guide, to calm. I befriended the lady sitting next to me who was similarly nervous. We chatted while we waited for everyone to find their seats. When the time came to make the procession we all stood and a nervous, excited energy soon overtook the room (or perhaps just me). My knees were shaking as I stood there ready to walk in and I realized this was it. After years of work, after deciding to take the plunge back into school, I had done it. The line started to move.

Organizers stood on the sidelines and made sure we were all in the right order and going the right way. When I walked through those doors I was overcome with emotion, with pride. The beating drums guided us down the isle. We found our seats and stood for the beautiful rendition of O?Canada, sung by ASANI, before sitting and listening to the speeches. I had a hard time hearing the words which were being spoken. I thought it was from where my chair was in relation to the speaker. My comrade in nervousness agreed that she couldn’t hear either. It didn’t make it any less pleasurable however as soon we were watching our classmates cross the stage. Classmates that we did not know, or knew only by name through chatter online. Our designation was next. I watched closely as each person crossed the stage, “do I shake hands? Do I not shake hands?” some did and some didn’t. I decided I would play it by feel.

Then I’m next and I hold my hands clenched in front of me. Breathe, breathe, breathe. They call my name and I walk onto the stage to accept my degree. In this moment I am in awe, and it has finally struck me. I have finished my university degree. While what I hold in my hands at that moment only symbolizes the degree (as my parchment arrived in the mail the week prior) it cements it in my heart and mind that this is it. I am in a daze and I do not hear the personalization they are saying. How did they write out the answers to the questions? I have no idea. I am flying high at this moment and I hear nothing until they say my name again and it is my que to leave the stage.

I discovered upon finding my seat that I could suddenly understand everything that was being said. I was grateful to be able to hear the speech given by a fellow student; who very eloquently touched on what it means to be a mature student and a life long learner. Then we prepared to leave the stage. Professors and alumni exit first and graduates follow. The drums were beating as we made our way off the stage and through the crowd. As I expect to leave the crowd I am shocked when I see the remaining isle lined by those I thought had already left. They stand and clap as we walk by and I find myself overwhelmed. There is a pride within them, they all smile and seem genuinely happy to be there and proud of each student that is walking away grasping their degree. As I walk I see a tutor who impacted me greatly, she is smiling and looking directly at me. I am filled at that moment with such an intense sense of accomplishment, I nearly trip. I doubt anyone noticed.

Going to Athabasca for convocation was an incredible experience. There are no words to express how much it meant to me to make the pilgrimage there and to meet fellow students. And to also get the opportunity to meet a professor who has had such an impact on my confidence and skill. Attending graduation, meeting wonderful people, and seeing the university grounds underlined my accomplishment. It felt real in those moments, in the steps on campus, and in the smiles that greeted me as I left the stage. I encourage all who are considering going to their convocation to go. To take the time to see the school and to meet others. To walk across the stage and accept your degree; it is a beautiful and unique ceremony.

I would like to take this moment to give heartfelt congratulations to fellow graduates of 2016.

Deanna Roney is an AU student who loves adventure in life and literature