Vice-Chancellor, ladies and gentlemen, graduates of 2016 both here in person and in absentia, but with us in spirit and perhaps watching now on the web: congratulations!
Congratulations, first of all of course, to you, the graduates, looking splendid in your academic dress; and congratulations also to the parents, friends and family in this audience. Your support, your love – and perhaps the occasional emergency cash loan – have enabled your children to succeed and to celebrate this important rite of passage today. Graduates, you are now lifetime members of an academic community that has celebrated its students for more than six hundred years. You and your loved ones should be proud, as we, the staff of this University, certainly are on this occasion.
In this hall today we have a truly diverse group of students, subjects studied and qualifications achieved. Some of you here might want to spend the rest of your lives working in education and making your own contributions to knowledge. Some of you might have made a bonfire of your revision notes the minute you exited the examinations hall, rejoicing never to have to write an essay again, ready for an entirely new chapter to begin. Either way, I am here today to tell you that you have not wasted your time or your money.
When you travelled to this little corner of Scotland you came to challenge yourself with new ways of thinking, to show independence of mind in your work and to refuse to accept the simple or obvious as satisfactory answers. George Tomlinson argued that the real value of education is that “it enables the individual to pierce the crust of things, to get beneath the surface, to see through the exterior to the reality, what lies behind and beneath”. Even if you forget some of the concrete learning you have done here, the ability to navigate successfully in what some are now calling a “post-fact world” has never been more important. Carry that intellectual curiosity, rigour and integrity with you wherever you go and into whatever you do next.
You also came to this small town to broaden your horizons: to meet people from all over the world, and to make friendships that will last a lifetime. Study can be isolating: hours in the rehearsal room or library, reading, thinking and writing alone. When you look back on your time here, you will I’m sure remember some of the traditions of the University: foam fights in the Quad on Raisin Monday; the freezing May Dip; spectacular sunsets, balls and bonfires on the beach. But what about the friends who brought you cake when you were panicking about a deadline, who lent you lecture notes when you were ill? Who made you dress up in ridiculous outfits and took you out dancing, or encouraged you to play a new sport, audition for an acting role, and ask out the guy or girl you liked but were too shy to talk to? Individual drive can get you so far, but what makes a university experience is the people you study with and the friends you find. It’s easy to lose touch amidst the drama and bustle of life after university, but if I can give you one piece of advice, it is to keep in touch with each other.
Finally, I want to remind you of the challenge St Andrews sets its graduates. There is no such thing as a typical St Andrews student. But if I were to pin down what makes the students (and I hope the staff) of this university special, I would point to how supportive, optimistic and unpretentious this community is. In some ways this sits ill with the demanding motto of the university, Ever to Excel, which is a translation of the original ancient Greek from Homer’s Iliad. The vision of excellence the Iliad offers is often an individualist one: you prove you are the best by besting others, most often in the front rank of battle; you can earn deathless glory, but must pay the price in blood. This is a rather butch motto for a seat of learning and, obviously, you did not get your degrees by slaying your enemies like Achilles! But in ‘Ever to Excel’ I think the challenge of excellence remains. I am sure you will agree that we live in interesting and uncertain times. Now, indeed, we need graduates prepared to stand in the front rank and to take the lead.
Deathless glory can be yours, if you can continue to apply yourselves with determination, to work together optimistically, to contribute positively to your families and society. St Andrews expects no less, so continue to make us proud.
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