Graduation address: Professor Aaron Quigley

Wednesday 24 June 2015

Aaron Quigley

Vice-Chancellor, ladies and gentlemen and to all of our new graduates, congratulations! Your time invested here has been rewarded with the degrees you now hold. On behalf of my colleagues, I would like to thank you for your hard work and dedication, you make working here the pleasure that it is. I hope you have fond memories of your time here in this ancient seat of learning.

I first learned about the University of St Andrews nearly 20 years ago just days after I sat where you are now, graduating with my undergraduate degree. I left my home in Ireland and headed off to work in Japan as a teacher. There, I had to introduce myself to a large group of young Japanese teenagers who were learning English. At a loss as to what to tell them about, I decided to introduce them to my university the great Trinity College, Dublin, which was over 400 years old. After I finished my introduction, my now friend Ann, a recent graduate from here, stood up to tell the students about her university which was nearly 600 years old, with bonfires and balls, May Dips, red gowns and Raisin Weekends. I was certainly put in my place I can tell you. Today, you become part of the history of this great university and in time, the tapestry of your life will become part of the fabric of this institution.

When I first came to St Andrews, I met our Proctor, who told me that we in St Andrews are ‘lamb dressed as mutton’. This is a turn of phrase which I am sure you will agree requires careful statement and consideration. For it is true: on the outside we have our ancient buildings and age-old traditions but inside we are young. We are young and hungry as we undertake leading research in the world, we are young in our thinking about how we blend our teaching and research and we are young because of you, our students and now graduates. We should each remember this, as we proudly display the trappings of age that inside, burning brightly, is a young community of academics and scholars.

If you pause for a moment you might wonder what past scholars and alumni thought life had in store for them; what were their hopes and dreams and indeed what legacy did they leave the world? In 1929, the then Duchess of York received an honorary degree from the University of St Andrews and opened this very graduation hall you are sitting in today. British Pathé has a recording of some of this day, 86 years ago, which provides us with a window into the past. In that recording you can see the procession occur much as it did today, the maces, great robes of office and the new Younger Hall. If you found yourself a little flustered today, not knowing what to do with your robes, hood or programme then take comfort. In this recording you can see the young Duchess of York, later HM The Queen Mother, appearing a little nervous as she too struggles with her programme and hood before entering this very hall. However, what is most striking to me are the images of the students; aside from the ladies wearing caps and ties, they look very much as you do today. Happy, excited, jumping about for the camera, just like you all will be in a few moments out in the Quad. Keep that in mind as you are posing for images, that one day 86 years from now some academic might be digging through the archives of your selfies, trying to figure out what a selfie is, the word long since having vanished from the dictionary.

Today, I would like to leave you with three pieces of advice which I would hope our honorary graduate Vint Cerf agrees with.

Firstly, never stop learning. Perhaps today as you reflect on your time here you may feel it has passed far too quickly. Perhaps you wish you could stay a little longer or perhaps never leave. In a way you never have to leave (I do not mean your rooms in the residences – we need those back for the golfers). If you continue to learn for the rest of your life, you will never really leave here. You can carry the St Andrews experience on for the rest of your days.

Secondly, life is not always fair but never let that stop you being optimistic about it. I think that any life, when examined under a microscope, has its fair share of sorrow, tragedy and failure. You can sit back and let this wash over you and erode your confidence in life or you can accept it, learn to appreciate what you have in life and build on it. No matter what life throws at you, stay in the game, do not sit on the sidelines. Stay optimistic about the days ahead.

Thirdly, you can, if you wish, simply float down the river of life, avoiding risky undertakings or bold choices and dodging unusual or exciting experiences. This does not quite exemplify the sense of ‘Ever to Excel’ that I think you now feel. Life is an adventure. To continue the adventure you have started, you need to remind yourself that you have only one life so live it well. Life is too short; so do not waste a moment of it. Embrace the opportunities, experiences and risks you take and try to live a life without regret.

In my experience, your life is a canvas for your imagination. So far you have only sketched the outline of what might be. But life is not paint by numbers, so you will probably need to go outside your sketched lines from time to time. I suggest you try to experiment with all the colours in the palette (in moderation) and realise that we all make mistakes. Deciding which mistakes to keep separates the master from the apprentice, but this is half the fun in life.

Finally, I do wonder what you will remember from your time here in St Andrews. Will it be your assignments or an academic family? Practicals or the pier walk? Racing to a tutorial or red gowns and Raisin Monday? A May Dip at dawn, or a Dervish at dark? Your lectures and your lecturers or the Lizard Lounge? None, some, or all of these? Only time will tell, but today I recommend you try to soak up every last moment here, show your friends and family around and tell them about your memories of this place. And of course thank them; thank them for the love, care and support they have given you over the years. With learning, optimism and adventure and whatever may come, I hope that you enjoy your life and that it truly becomes a masterpiece.

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