AU Convocation From the Inside

For many students at Canadian universities graduation ceremonies are lasts; the last time being with a large group of classmates, the last time they enter as student rather than an alumni, for some, even the last time they live in a particular city before moving on to further studies or work.  For many AU students attending convocation in person, that ceremony contains firsts; the first time we sit with our classmates and speak to them face to face, the first time stepping on campus, the first time we meet administrators and faculty, and the first time visiting the town of Athabasca.  I chose AU because it meant I could study without paying for daycare on top of tuition, a story that’s very common for AU students.  Many of us have life circumstances that require more flexibility than a traditional brick and mortar university can give, and just as Athabasca is different from other universities, its convocation was different as well.

Like many other universities AU had multiple ceremonies–the Faculty of Health Disciplines and Faculty of Science and Technology convocated on July 19 and the Faculty of Business and the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences on July 20, each day had ceremonies both in person as well as online.  I attended in person, and I was deeply impressed by the work that went into making travel to Athabasca (a small town approximately 150 km North of Edmonton), feasible.  My family had a rental car as we planned a road trip around convocation, but AU ensured there were buses from Edmonton to the town so that people didn’t have to rent a car.


Once we got there, there were plenty of volunteers organising parking and answering questions.  AU’s campus is across from the Athabasca town multi-plex (think of a community centre with the town ice rink, gymnasium, and other spaces all together), which is where convocation took place.  We were greeted by many volunteers; I was directed into the gowning room to get my graduation gown and my family’s lunch tickets, and then we were ushered into a large room with a hot breakfast.  Now, this is my second degree, and I am sure meals are not normally a part of convocation ceremonies but the ceremony was going to be right over lunchtime to make sure everyone had time to drive to the town, so they made sure both graduands (“graduand” is the British equivalent for the word “graduate”, probably reflecting the fact that AU is modelled on the Open University, a similar university in the UK.) and guests were well fed ahead of time.

There were multiple places to take photos—I did find it curious that these seemed to be the only places that there weren’t volunteers or staff members available to help, because it’s nice to be able to get your entire family or group in a photo, but it was pretty easy to ask other people to take a photo and help make sure they had group shots in return.  As a mom of three kids, I was a bit apprehensive about getting the kids through the day—it’s a lot of driving paired with sitting through a ceremony and I was worried they’d get antsy or hungry so I had packed snacks and quiet activities for them so they wouldn’t be disruptive, but the team that planned this ceremony planned for kids.  My absolute favourite part of the set up was a table they had in a corner with paper, stickers, and markers so that kids could make their graduating parents cards.  I love this, because it really showed that whoever put this together started by seeing who AU students are—most of us don’t fit the typical student stereotype of being 18-22 without dependents and many of us have caretaking responsibilities.  Rather than planning a typical ceremony like any other university, the convocation team saw us and planned something with us in mind.  The card table also gave out AU bags to the kids with some swag including a small stuffed owl wearing an AU t-shirt that was hands-down my six-year-old’s favourite part of the day.

Shortly before the ceremony the graduands were gathered into a room where we were arranged by faculty and degree and got instructions from Angela Kuzyk, the Registrar, about what to do and what to expect during the ceremony.  I can’t quite put my finger on why, but this was one of my favourite parts of the day.  There was something really special about being able to chat with other students in my program and to be congratulated in words that weren’t scripted speeches but that felt authentic, personal, and less somber than the ceremony itself.  It was part of the day where we didn’t have to worry about being in the right place or remembering what to do—the ceremony felt like it was over quickly, but in this part of the day it was easier to be in the moment, and really reflect about the fact that after years of work I finally reached the end of this part of my educational journey.

During the ceremony the graduands got to walk across the stage, which is probably what most of us imagine when we think of convocation, but there were also congratulatory speeches from the university president and chair of the board, as well as an address by the Elder in Residence at AU, Dr.  Maria Campbell, who spoke about the gift of ribbons that are presented to all graduands at AU.  Each day there was the presentation of an honorary degree.  On the day I graduated AU presented an Honorary Doctor of Laws to Dr.  Douglas Cardinal, an Indigenous architect who spoke to us about how his work incorporated different viewpoints he had experienced within his life, including matriarchy and the value of centring femininity within society, which is common in Indigenous cultures in Canada and the US.

The in-person ceremonies also had an address by a local representative (the county Reeve on the 19th and the Mayor on the 20th), but these were missing from the online ceremonies which was a missed opportunity.  The town has wanted and fought for AU to hold convocation in Athabasca itself, but that’s inaccessible for many AU grads.  I am very fortunate to have had the opportunity to walk across the stage, and I am happy that there were online ceremonies—I watched the one for the 19th to see the other students from my faculty graduate and I felt sad that the town didn’t show up for that one.  I wish the town had sent their representatives to congratulate the online attendees and included their congratulations in the grad package the university sent out.  So many students choose AU because they can’t come to a university in person, and I wish the students who couldn’t physically come to Athabasca had gotten the same care and congratulations that those of us who have the privilege to be able to travel received.  If the town only sees the students that have the time, money, and flexibility to travel they miss out on seeing really important segments of AU’s students—each of whom deserves equal recognition of their accomplishments.

After the ceremony we all walked across the street to the AU campus where we were given picnic lunches and the opportunity to explore the campus for the Athabasca Festival before the buses left.  I really enjoyed this part, as well, it was also not at all what I expected; everything I saw was related to Athabasca University, and, while I was chasing kids so could have missed something, I didn’t see any booths from the town’s businesses.  The At Home at Athabasca website lists a solid number of artisans and food-based businesses and I expected there to be a local farmer’s market component to the festival, especially since the town has lobbied for years to have convocation up in Athabasca itself, but town businesses were conspicuously absent.

There were bubbles and sidewalk chalk for the kids as well as booths from both student unions and accessibility services, and—for at least the first day—the Faculty of Science and Technology had demonstrations of the home lab projects from their science courses and some live close-up chemistry—specifically how you can use liquid nitrogen and cream to make ice cream (I suspect AU is the only university in Canada to have fresh-made chemistry ice cream at their grad), they even had toppings—my family thought it went best with sour gummy worms.  We got to visit the AU store and library and chat with AU staff, which I really enjoyed as I worked with many of them in my roles at AUSU, so getting to meet in person was particularly special.

From left to right, Chantel Groening – President of AUSU, Me, and Jodi Campbell, the Executive Director of AUSU

A lot of the time at AU, students go through our education without things students at other universities seem to all have: live or in-person lectures, easier opportunities to connect with other students, and easily available labs and resources, among other things; many of us choose AU because its flexibility is the only way we can get through our programs while meeting our other obligations in life.  But at AU’s convocation, the whole day of driving up, being fed a great breakfast, having activities for kids, getting instructions with Angela’s humour, the ceremony, the lunch and festival (and science ice cream!), was a day of AU students getting so much more than graduates at typical universities.  I’m deeply thankful I was able to go; it was a lovely end to a rather eventful several years.