I’m reminded of the words of the Joni Mitchell song stating “I’ve looked at life from both sides now” as I consider my feelings regarding degree ceremonies. I think I have by now looked at graduation from just about every conceivable direction (certainly more than two). It is, to my horror, nearly 40 years since I first donned a hood and gown to receive my own BA – in typical Cambridge fashion that was the degree I got, since the University does not award BSc degrees. I chose to go with the flow and receive the degree in person, but I don’t remember a huge lot about it. The rabbit fur (no idea if it was still genuine, or had already been transmuted into nylon) was hot on a warm late June day; the black ankle-length skirt (praelectors were very strict about what we wore back then; no jewellery, everything had to be strictly black and white) too long to kneel down in and then spring up again conveniently; the recently sprained ankle that made things even harder; and of course the Latin – those are the things I remember. I didn’t see it as a rite of passage, merely a chance to say farewell to my friends on the Senate House lawn afterwards and go to Grantchester for a cream tea with my family.
Neither my MA nor my PhD did I take in person, having already left the UK for the US, but I did attend my then fiancé’s graduation, at which he took advantage of the University’s ruling that – beyond black and white – national costume could be worn, looking resplendent in a multi-coloured kilt. I also attended a very different sort of ceremony at which my (by then) husband got his PhD at Cornell, with a huge open air gathering and a hood that was a great deal more complicated than a Cambridge one to get to sit correctly so that its many colours were appropriately visible. As I recall it took his mother-in-law and a lot of safety pins to get it to sit right. Still, I didn’t really see these ceremonies as hugely significant; they were just what happened at the end of a lot of work, and possibly were an excuse for a celebration.
Then, after a gap of many years, there were the occasions where I went as a proud mother to watch my offspring graduate. I saw different universities do things very differently – for instance the appearance of an honorary graduand (Cambridge has a separate ceremony entirely for its chosen few, not mixing with the hoi polloi of the regular graduates), and the ‘capping’ of each new graduate with the hat allegedly made from John Knox’s breeches that Edinburgh runs to.
But recently I’ve started to see things differently again, as I’ve learnt to see things through the eyes of students who are clearly a lot less blasé than I ever was about my own degrees. I have in the last couple of years attained the stature of a Deputy Vice Chancellor in Cambridge. This is not in itself an executive role (as it is in some Universities) so much as ceremonial. My previous VC, Alison Richard, offered me the role to ‘increase my convening power’ for my work around women in science, and my current VC has maintained the offer. With it comes the opportunity to confer degrees, and so I have been at the opposite end of the graduation ceremony from where I started. I am afraid my first response to doing this was probably not entirely appropriate, as it provoked a hastily suppressed fit of the giggles. Wearing what is clearly a Santa Claus look-alike costume of a red mantle trimmed with (synthetic) fur, I found my first procession behind the mace hard to take seriously; with the officials bowing to me it felt completely surreal (although one can rapidly get used to this), and anyhow I was trying not to get too nervous about speaking Latin publicly or messing up which degree I conferred on whom.
But as I have got more relaxed about my own role, I have begun to appreciate what the ceremony means for many of the students. The procedure is very formal – none of the hugging at Exeter (more on this below), none of the freedom to choose whatever fashion takes the student’s fancy – and, at least to a first approximation, unchanged in the time since I took my own degree (and probably a lot longer than that). Some of the students approach me with shaking hands, nervous and all but overwhelmed, some mumble an expression of thanks, or bow /curtsey (this tends to occur with certain colleges more than others), some get very confused about how to place their hands (I am supposed to clasp their hands as I pronounce my Latin sentences), or where to kneel. But what is absolutely clear as I make eye contact with many of the students – some can’t nerve themselves to look me in the eye – is that they are moved and taking this ceremony very seriously in a way I cannot recall doing myself. It makes me feel very differently about the whole process. This really is a pinnacle of achievement for so many, a moment to stand proud in front of one’s peers, friends and family, to celebrate perseverance and success, as well as the start of the rest of their lives. I can no longer regard my own role as a mere formality, but as something much more personal and meaningful, and of significance to those who endure my Latin pronouncements (so far, as far as I’m aware, always the correct degree conferred on each individual).
Last week I participated in graduation ceremonies in what, I suspect, must be my last possible role. I was honoured to find myself being awarded honorary ScD’s from both Exeter and UEA a couple of days apart. Now my participatory role was different again, dressed in brightly coloured bicoloured robes (I mentioned it would be good to warn the honorary graduand of the relevant colour scheme, so that women can choose an appropriate dress that won’t clash horribly when, like me, they eschew plain black) and a floppy hat not a mortarboard, plus a seat on the platform looking down on the serried ranks of graduands. This location provided a chance to contemplate the teetering steps of women wearing heels of a height I suspect they’d never ventured on before (though none fell over, several of us had fears for some of them) and admire their varied hues of toenail varnish. At UEA it was a moment to shake hands with the presiding officer and, at Exeter, to be hugged warmly by their extrovert Chancellor Floella Benjamin, who hugs each granduand in turn. And finally, a chance to speak – in English – to wish the new graduates well on their future paths, and to try to dredge up tales to tell from my own experiences that were at least somewhat relevant and vaguely witty. But since in both cases my speech came right at the end, also a chance – not only to squirm as kind words were addressed to me by the universities’ orators – but to get increasingly nervous as that moment of my own brief speech approached and to reflect, with that never-absent feeling of being an impostor, that I had no business even being there let alone pontificating to others.