In theory, I understand why students (and their friends/family) get excited about attending a graduation ceremony: They’ve spent years working towards their degree and they finally get someone–a whole big crowd of someones, in fact–to both recognize their sacrifices and help celebrate their achievements. That all sounds well and good on paper, but in reality (assuming we’re not discussing ceremonies for one-room schoolhouses in tiny towns) they are rather long and drawn-out affairs that involve a tedious run-down of dozens upon dozens of names, some inevitably belonging to people you swear you never saw at any point during the entire degree program.
Or, at least, that was how I felt about the ceremonies that I attended when I received my high school, Bachelor’s, and Master’s diplomas (I skipped my PhD ceremony because I just couldn’t bear another). Perhaps those were not fully representative examples of what a graduation celebration can be; all I know is that the University of Exeter ceremony this summer was nothing like what I’d previously experienced.
For one thing, to start on a totally vapid and shallow note, my robes were much more impressive. Like the ones I wore in previously, this year’s were merely rented–thank heavens, because it costs hundreds of pounds to purchase them. However, these were made of thick, heavy, high-quality fabric rather than cheap polyester; I almost felt as though I were wearing repurposed curtains. Whereas I’d formerly felt as though I was dressing up in a disposable Halloween costume purchased from Walmart, this year’s robes gave me the sense of being a true scholar who had just emerged from Hogwarts or Cambridge or some other ancient and worthy institution of higher learning.
That said, I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed not to receive the actual robes to which I was entitled as a doctoral graduate of the College of William and Mary. They would have looked like this:
I don’t think that any of the other academics at this year’s ceremony wore green, so I would definitely have stood out from the crowd. This outfit also has the advantage of being hoodless, which would have spared me the torture of spending my afternoon being choked by my own clothing (I nearly developed a repetitive strain injury from adjusting the hood every 30 seconds or so). One thing I did insist on was upholding the WM tradition of spurning a hat; there was no way I was going to assault my ‘do with a mortarboard or any of the bizarre forms of headgear worn by European scholars (for examples, see video below).
The venue was also quite a bit more exciting than those to which I’ve been invited in the past:
The Truro Cathedral may not be as venerable as some of the hallowed graduation facilities doubtless used by institutions such as Cambridge and Oxford, but it is still darn impressive–and is certainly much more scenic than the gymnasium in which I attended my high school ceremony, or the banquet room where I received my Master’s diploma. Flying buttresses, rose windows, and stained glass do have a way of making an occasion a bit more awe-inspiring. (All due respect, though, to Haverford College, which holds its ceremony outdoors on its beautiful campus; it is hard to compete with nature’s decorations.)
The venue worked especially well with the British practice of processing. This is not just the entrance of hundreds of robed and bedecked graduands; it also involves the more fancifully attired faculty, the even more fancifully attired VIPs, a scepter, a staff, a mace, and lots of bowing. It was properly archaic, and I mean that as a compliment.
The grand finale of the procession was the entrance of our chancellor–who holds a predominantly ceremonial, rather than executive, position. I say “predominantly” because, in our case, there was no doubt as to who was in charge of giving the day’s proceedings a simultaneous sense of weightiness, pizzazz, and meaning; the event may have been attended by our all-powerful vice chancellor and chief executive Sir Steve Smith, but its great success lay in the very capable hands of the formidable Baroness Floella Benjamin.
Floella is probably best known as the former presenter of TV shows for children. Her showbiz pedigree was obvious from the moment she entered the nave, confidently swaggering along in the position of honor at the very tail of the procession, turquoise sequins flashing with every step. Uttered by anyone else, her welcome speech might have seemed a bit over the top, but coming from Floella it felt appropriate and inspiring. She went on to personally greet, shake hands with, hug, and/or kiss every single student receiving a diploma, leaving even the surliest and most reticent beaming with delight.
Speaking of diplomas, this is where the students came to receive them:
Not the most picturesque or exciting of destinations after standing on a dais in the center of a cathedral with a well-known celebrity. This was my station, since I was once of two people responsible for handing out diplomas to graduates from the College of Life and Environmental Sciences and the University of Exeter Medical School. Many students didn’t seem to realize that they would receive this paperwork en route to their seats, so my colleague and I frequently had to step out and intercept them as they tried to pass us by in their smiling, dream-like state. Many of them seemed dazed by the experience, which I suppose is understandable; they worked hard for three long years and then suddenly their moment in the spotlight was over in just a matter of seconds. Also, I suspect that may be a common side effect of encounters with Floella.
Once the paperwork was all handed out, the procession was repeated in reverse, allowing the faculty to exit and the students to parade around picturesquely in front of their parents one last time. They filed out into the square in front of the cathedral in order to mingle and take photographs. Eventually, they made their way to the rendezvous point where they could hop a bus back to campus in time for the college-specific reception–which involved a large number of these:
To be honest, I was kind of dreading graduation day–partly because I was worried that I would make a mistake when handing out diplomas, and partly because I thought it would be boring to sit and listen to 300 names being read off one by one. However, I both overestimated how difficult it would be to find and distribute the correct envelope to each student, and underestimated how invested I felt in the achievements of these students that I had been helping to educate over the past several years. As it turns out, despite my endless grumbling over the volume and content of e-mails I’ve been receiving while working as both a lecturer and administrator, I do actually care about the students who send them, and I was extremely pleased to see the looks of excitement, happiness, and pure relief that flooded their faces as they walked across the stage. I was a little bit like the Grinch experiencing his heart expansion on Christmas morning.
Alas, there was one small thing that kept me from completely and unabashedly enjoying the day’s celebrations:
This brought to mind all the disastrous misspellings I’ve seen on the graduation cakes profiled on Cake Wrecks. This may not have been as egregious as some of those errors, but it was still pretty painful for someone as sensitive to typos as I am–after all, this sign was erected at an event celebrating education! Ah, the irony. Clearly, the text was not written by one of our graduates, whom I’m sure cease misspellings altogether once they receive a University of Exeter diploma.
In all seriousness, though, I’m pleased to report that it was a joyous and inspiring ceremony on a flawlessly beautiful Cornish day. The event organizers should be proud of how smoothly everything ran, the faculty and staff should be proud of how many graduands they ushered through their many difficult years of study, and the scholars should be proud of their achievements. Mortarboards off to the Class of 2014!