Graduation Day

I attended my partner’s graduation ceremony on Thursday night and felt ashamed. Not of her – after all, she has worked incredibly hard over the last three years and has certainly earned her degree – but of myself. Looking over the event program, I saw the list of Faculty of Science graduates followed by the much longer list of ‘enabling program’ students, those who had completed the 12-month bridging course which allowed people to enter university without the usual high school qualification. There must have been 200 names, along with two student speakers, and it took force to suppress an eye roll. 

As academics, we participate in a culture which lauds research. We welcome new PhDs into the community only after they have demonstrated that they are capable researchers. We welcome new graduates into the community after they have demonstrated a deep familiarity with the research. Faced with a large group of students who had done neither of these things, it was hard to avoid wondering why they were being included and dragging the ceremony out by another hour. 

Once the ceremony was underway, I put them out of my mind. Naturally, the PhDs graduated first: 17 in all (!) with theses on topics drawn from biotechnology, mathematics, and psychology. Then, the top-flight undergraduates – the University medallists – and the other undergraduates. I watched my partner accept her award with pride, and then checked the very long list of names between hers and the end of the program. We were in for a very long evening. 

The faculty (including myself) are seated on stage, so we are visible to the audience and obligated to smile, nod, and applaud with every graduate, even the enabling program students. You tend to go on autopilot at these times, robotically going through the motions while your brain potters thinks about the upcoming weekend or the volume of unanswered emails waiting for responses. 

Then one of the enabling program students rose to give a speech and I braced myself for the wave of cliches and pablum that every student delivers. Well, my expectations could not have been more wrong. This student spoke about not caring much about high school, about drifting around the country with his best friend, and that friend’s sudden death. He spoke about depression, drinking, and drugs. He spoke about emptiness and the need to get his life together, to make something of himself. He spoke about finding the enabling program and committing himself to it. He spoke about how he fell off the rails, more than once, but the staff were there to help him figure things out and get back on track. He spoke about how the program had completely changed his life. 

That short speech hit me like a mean left hook. Not much later, a second speaker rose to finish the job. She spoke about life as a single mother, with four children, and a father who had abandoned them. She spoke about knowing that she needed a good job to provide for her children, and pushing herself through the program over two years so she could enrol for a degree. She spoke about the difficulty of studying while raising children and working menial jobs to support them, and the necessity of friends and emotional support. She spoke, with pride, about having been accepted as a Bachelor of Teaching student, and I don’t think anyone listening could suppress a smile in that moment: we all shared her relief, her joy, and her pride. 

Of course, their stories weren’t unique: many of the enabling students in the crowd were nodding along with the speeches, clearly recognising the same struggles in their own lives, and sharing the pride that they had overcome the odds and achieved something. I felt proud of all of them.

But alongside that pride was my own feeling of shame. Shame that I had thought less of these people for not having a degree, shame in my arrogance, shame that I had let myself think more of some and less of others. I know my partner and my own students work hard for their accomplishments, and my colleagues and I had all worked hard to earn our positions on that stage, but I’m not sure anyone in that room had worked harder than these students. There was no-one more deserving of their moment on the stage with the room’s applause. 

Australian universities don’t have the same sense of pride or school spirit that you see elsewhere. Most students attend the local university and few people get excited about random geographical outcomes. But it’s hard not to feel proud of an institution which has had literally tens of thousands of students complete these programs over four decades; helping them get into university, change their lives, and make something of themselves.

In academia, it’s easy to get caught up in the hierarchical culture of elitism. Last night was a reminder of why that is a mistake, and I hope to feel that same sting of shame whenever I share in it.