Chancellor, ladies and gentlemen and especially new graduates of the University of St Andrews!
Graduation, the formal completion of a course of university studies, is an important rite of passage. It is important for the individuals who have achieved this notable success, but also for the communities of family and friends who have supported them in countless ways. And it matters a great deal to the people who make up this university. Chefs, cleaners, librarians, administrators, student support counsellors and academics: we are all here to help you to succeed, and we rejoice with you in this moment of celebration. Many congratulations!
A rite of passage as significant as graduation should be made memorable. In the mosaic of life this day deserves to be a particularly lustrous piece that continues to shine when it is recalled in years and decades to come. St Andrews does graduation rather well, I think. This ceremony, the magnificent beadles bearing our ancient maces, the gowns, the music, the garden parties and the ball: all of these elements combine to make this joyous and proud moment stand out.
Other institutions have different traditions. At the seat of learning where I worked before coming to St Andrews, they had a ritual which provided something which does not really form a regular part of the St Andrews graduation culture: humour – laced with a jot of cruel ribbing.
Following the graduation dinner at this institution a little parlour game was played: tutors would read out passages from the new graduates’ old personal UCAS statements, passages that were lovingly selected for their cringe worthy effect; and their mates then had to guess who had penned these unforgiveable lines.
I remember one applicant confirming that he knew that university was not all ‘about great looks and feats of athleticism’ (while hinting strongly that he could offer plenty of both). Another applicant promised boundless dedication since ‘second best does not feature in my vocabulary’. But the most unforgettable – and most mysterious – sentence I recall read: ‘All through my childhood I have been very fortunate in that I have lived next to a large chicken farm.’
For my address today I was naturally keen to inject some of the mirth generated by these pearls of application prose. So I asked our Admissions Department to send me the old UCAS forms of the graduates seated in the first three rows of the hall today … but was told that there are now rules about privacy, data protection and human decency. And so my little plan was thwarted.
Instead, I would like to invite you to ponder what would make re-reading your UCAS statement such a funny, embarrassing, poignant or moving experience. I would guess that this is the result of the strangeness that comes from being addressed by the person that you once were – a strangeness that throws into sharp relief how much you have changed in the course of your university years. Yet change – though it can leave you feeling daunted, disorientated or awkward – is a wholesome part of the human condition.
In his beautiful poem Stages, Hermann Hesse encourages us to embrace the inevitability of change joyfully and optimistically:
Be ready, heart, for parting, new endeavour,
Be ready bravely and without remorse
To find new light that old ties cannot give.
In all beginnings dwells a magic force
Protecting us and helping us to live.
Serenely let us move from stage to stage
And let no sentiments of home detain us.
A quip usually ascribed to Mark Twain makes a similar point. Though he does so somewhat more caustically than Hesse, I sincerely hope that the change he describes is a common phenomenon – especially with my own two sons growing up only too rapidly. ‘When I was a boy of fourteen,’ Twain observed, ‘my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.’
I hope that the change you have undergone during your time at St Andrews has come with some of these same attributes: that it has made you braver as well as more serene; has brought with it some magic and little remorse; has helped you find some new light and has, perhaps, even led you to appreciate how much the old folks back home (and the old folks teaching you here) have learned in these four years.
And spare a thought, also, for what and who has allowed you to change in this way. Sure, moving to a new place, encountering different ideas, discovering that neither fridges nor loo roll holders replenish themselves – all that makes you change and adapt. But I would argue that, more than anything, it is people that really make us change – by challenging us, impressing us, provoking us, supporting us, attracting us and annoying us.
With this thought comes the realisation that it is not just that we are being changed and shaped by the people we meet at university – by the friends, flatmates, team mates, secretaries, bar staff and professors: but we return the favour and change them, too. Each one of you, throughout your time at St Andrews, has not just received an education, but has contributed to the journeys of so many others, who have moved from stage to stage alongside you. You may have been the one who asked the searching questions after a presentation or the one who noticed that your flatmate needed cheering up; you may have provided the piece of grit that enabled a fellow student to form a pearl or you may have made someone feel so loved that they would scorn to change their state with kings.
We treasure the contribution that you have made to the living, vibrant, humane and scholarly organism that is the University of St Andrews. We are convinced that we are a richer, stronger community because of it and that you have changed us for the better. And it is our sincere wish that you feel the same about the contribution of this place, of this institution, of this community to the journey that you have been on since you filled in your application forms – and that the St Andrews experience will stand you in excellent stead for the exciting journey ahead of you now.
So if you are like that mysterious, poultry-loving applicant, then we are happy that you consider yourself fortunate to have spent your childhood living next to a large chicken farm, but we want more; we want you to look back to your time here in years to come and think: ‘After the chickens, it got even better; after that I moved to St Andrews.’ Well done!Awards