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Graduation address – Professor Alexandra MZ Slawin

When I was asked to give this speech, many thoughts went through my mind, uppermost of which was ‘what shoes shall I wear?’. I hope I decided on something sensible and low-heeled, to lessen the chances of falling flat on my face. My next thoughts concerned my hair, and how to make it look like a River Song type hairdo, rather than the frizzled mass I suspect you are now seeing.

At this point you may be wondering if you are listening to the right speech, “surely this is supposed to be the inspiring bit about keeping in touch, going forth in to the world with hope in our hearts, blah blah blah given by, if I heard it right, a Professor of Chemistry?” Well yes it is, and yes I am.

The slightly laboured point I am hoping to make today is that in life, in all you do, you should be true to yourself. I may be a professor, but that doesn’t stop me wondering about my shoes and my hair, worrying about my children, and no matter how great a honour today is, wishing I was instead with my middle son whose twenty-first birthday it is today, and whose graduation I will be at on Friday. The fact he won’t mind me not being with him is neither here nor there. I must admit the knowledge that by mentioning him I can embarrass him is at least slightly cheering. In fact I wasn’t at my oldest son’s twenty-first birthday, as it was also near his graduation, but there’s a slight chance I’ll be at my youngest son’s one. As all parents and supporters here today will know, you can’t mention one child without shoe-horning the others in, so shoe-horn I have. My children are important to me, as all of you who are graduating today are important to those who have loved and supported you throughout your time here. Today is a time and place when we celebrate your achievements, and you look forward to the rest of your life. In telling you to be true to yourselves, I am hoping that in the years to come, you will set about life and grab it by the throat, rather than letting it grab you.

For some of you there will be more years at university, here or elsewhere, for some the start of your career and for others a time when you pause before deciding which direction to set off in. For all of you, I hope you will find a path that fits with your strengths and dreams, and not those of your parents, your tutors or others.

At this point I am anticipating at least half the hall will disagree with me, but still I say it. Life is too short and too precious to spend large parts of it following other people’s hopes. We are all prone to doing things so as not to disappoint those who love us, and those whom we love, but it does us all harm in the end to follow a path that is not for us.

I am not, by the way, advocating that we all chuck in our day jobs and aim to become the next signing for Chelsea or JK Rowling – although I do occasionally toy with the latter thought myself. I am however saying that even for those of us fortunate to have careers that play to our strengths and interests, there are many days, weeks, months sometimes when things go hideously wrong. Boring bits of administration have to be undertaken, and dull people at dull meetings have to be endured without them knowing you find both them and it tedious! The prospect of a job where you don’t enjoy any aspect of it is a terrible thing to contemplate. There is a temptation in hard times to take any job that is offered to you, and at least have some money coming in – and I have taken many of those myself, despite what I’ve just told you. When you have responsibilities, it is hard to turn down the prospect of employment. What I am suggesting is that whatever you try to do, and indeed end up doing, try to remain ‘you’, and not who you think circumstance is making you. Personal growth and development is all well and good, but at our core we remain who we started out as. I am still the girl from Taunton, in Somerset, who started a degree in chemistry; mostly because of Mrs Jean Peake, a chemistry teacher at Bishop Fox’s Girl Grammar School in Taunton, to whom I owe much. I’m still the woman, possibly slightly more of her, my husband married and I’m still a mum who thinks my boys need looking after, and I am all this whilst, I hope, convincing the professional world that I know what I’m doing.

I suppose all I’m really trying to say is that you may be happy to have been here, you may be happy to be leaving. There may be people you will always keep in touch with and others you will be happy to see the back of. Whichever one it is, it’s over now, and the only thing you can really do is try to do better in the future. Many people at this point, as the speech nears its end, quote from poetry or a book of great learning designed to inspire the audience and possibly impress by the great knowledge of the speaker. I however will leave you with some lines from a song I can frequently be heard singing as I go about my work. I sing a lot as I work; it cheers me up, though the same may not be true for those in earshot of me. I nearly went with Aerosmith and ‘I don’t wanna miss a thing’, just because I love that song, but decided that didn’t quite fit, so instead I conclude with the inspiring, at least to me, words of 5ive, and say:

Get on up when you’re down
Baby, take a good look around
I know it’s not much, but it’s okay
Keep on moving on anyway.

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