Graduation Address – Dr Susan Whiten

Friday 22 June 2012

Chancellor, Principal, Honoured Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen – and especially, you our new Graduates, for this address and these words are for you.

I was really delighted to have been asked to give this graduation address but I must admit that it is awe inspiring to be speaking to so many overexcited graduates, enthusiastic supporters and to all my colleagues sweltering in their resplendent gowns behind me and every last one of you now just itching to get out to celebrate.

The graduation address is traditional and in some places it can sometimes be quite long – don’t worry, I will keep this short and sweet….There will be a little back patting, some laughter (I hope), and finally a few words of inspiration. I will try to avoid being trite, longwinded, or boring……. So, no pressure then…..

Three weeks ago I met one of our graduates from several years ago now looking around the new medical building. He told me touchingly of his great affection for the University of St Andrews and how he felt that he had ‘grown up’ here. I told him I would mention today what he had said. Some degrees, are given to very distinguished honorary graduates, in recognition of great and valuable contributions made to the wider world beyond St Andrews.   But most of today’s degrees are awarded to you who have been educated here, you will have done some of your growing up here too; today marks the end of that journey and this graduation day celebrates it.

I deliberately say ‘some’ of your growing up – for in ten years’ time I am pretty sure you will look back at the graduation photos and realise that you didn’t really know anything then….. growing up takes many years and some of us up here still feel that we haven’t quite completed that process!!

Shall we start with some back patting?

I would like to begin by congratulating all the families and friends who are here – well done! You certainly deserve to be mentioned, many of us have children who have now graduated and so we know how wonderful it feels today and what it cost you ….. and I don’t just mean in your pocket. But I do I remember at last year’s graduation overhearing a mother trying to take a picture of their son in his gown and hood, posing with his father. “Come on let’s try to make this look natural” she said ‘put your arm around your Dad’s shoulder’. The father was very amused and said, “If you want it to look natural, why not have him put his hand in my pocket?

Graduates, remember that the degree you received today reflects the sacrifices of your family and supporters as well as reflecting your own efforts. I could see by the huge smiles and the loud applause that each of you received, that there are very proud parents & friends behind each one of you. Please stand up and applaud the mums, dads, relatives & supporters who helped you to achieve your degrees today.

Thank you for trusting us with your children ….

And now congratulations to all our new graduates.

When you first came we reminded you that for each one of you there were ten others that were disappointed. Someone asked me why they had been chosen and I told them that they had been chosen not for the knowledge that they had then, but for their potential – today we see that potential realised in you all and it is delightful.

Well, we all did our best didn’t we students and teachers? At St Andrews University – we are big enough to deliver, small enough to care – we aim to provide not just a training but a well-rounded education.

So what do we mean when we talk of education?

Many philosophers have attempted to define education I like the definition suggested by the psychologist Skinner “Education is what survives when what has been learned is forgotten”!

I was walking with my colleague Jim and his dog the other day and he told me that he had taught the dog to whistle, but I said, “Wait a minute Jim, the dog isn’t whistling” “oh no” he replied “I said I had taught it to whistle but I didn’t say he had learned how to do it….”

We do hope that we really, really stretched you, that your mind was broadened and that you have the skills now to become independent, life-long learners who can critically sift through the literature, appraise the evidence and develop appropriate hypotheses. It is a process that can be surprising and the results are sometimes unexpected………..

A biomedical scientist up in the labs of the North Haugh wanted to alert the students to the evils of alcohol, so he developed an experiment that involved a glass of water, a glass of whiskey, and two worms. “Now, closely observe the worms,” said the tutor putting a worm first into the water where wriggled about, happy as a worm in water could be. The second worm, he put into the whisky. It writhed painfully, and quickly sank to the bottom, dead as a doornail. “Now, what lesson can we derive from this experiment?” the tutor asked. One bright chap raised his hand and said, “If you drink whisky you won’t get worms!!”

In educating you we hope to have woken you up intellectually ….to know now what you are capable of – to realise that having achieved something big (because you have) and to know that you can go on to achieve even bigger things.

I have been teaching students here for most of my life……. I think St Andrews University is, as Prince William said, “the best in the world”. I am very proud to play a part in it. Your personal success stories are what it’s all about, and it gives us all an enormous sense of satisfaction to see you graduate today and particularly to know that some of you achieved your degree in spite of personal difficulties.

So now to conclude with some words of wisdom.

I am going to read part of a poem to you. It comes from a young man I knew a little, but never met and who died too young, he died on Valentine’s Day in 2008. His partner was a medical student here and he chose this poem specifically to be read at the time of her graduation. It is however appropriate for you all today.

If there were ever a time to dare,
To make a difference
To embark on something worth doing
It is now.
Not for any grand cause, necessarily –
But for something that tugs at your heart
Something that is worth your aspiration
Something that is your dream.
You owe it to yourself
To make your days count.
Have fun. Dig deep. Stretch.

Dream big.

Believe in the incredible power
Of the human mind
Of doing something that makes a difference
Of working hard Of laughing and hoping
Of lasting friends,
Of all the things that will cross your path.
Next year
The start of something new
Brings the hope of something great.
Anything is possible
There is only one you
And you will pass this way but once.

Do it right.

I envy you! I wish I were graduating today! We wish you every success and great happiness as you step out into the world; you are ready and you are able to make a difference. Dream big!

Dr Susan Whiten
School of Medicine

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