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Graduation address – Professor Clare Parnell

Vice-Chancellor, ladies and gentlemen…

I would like to start by saying congratulations. Congratulations to all of our new graduates on their success in gaining a degree from the University of St Andrews. Congratulations to all their parents, here in the audience today and also those watching on a web broadcast. Your love and support have helped produce truly remarkable young people. Finally, congratulations to all my academic colleagues for once again nurturing another set of students with the care and attention that is necessary. It is always wonderful to see so many of you succeed and take part in celebrating your success.

As I listened to the ceremony today and watched you all come up on stage I was reminded of the time, eighteen years ago, when I too was nervously waiting to receive my PhD in Mathematics. I almost got up too quickly as the Bedellus skilfully whipped my academic hood on before I stood up. On behalf of all the graduates whom you have served so well over many years, John Jardine, and all the other mace bearers and ushers, I thank you sincerely.

During my studies I believed I would only be in St Andrews for 3 years and then I would move on to a job elsewhere. I chose St Andrews not only because it was internationally renowned, but also because it was Scotland and because Scotland has some of the best walking and climbing in the UK.

Three years in Scotland and 283 Munros (mountains over 3000ft)…. Could I climb them all?

I had my mum’s old banger, which did many miles, as did my walking boots. Both gave up the ghost at about the same time at the end of the three years.

I walked in glorious sunshine with fantastic views. And I walked in blizzards unable even to see my hand in front of my face. I had good days and bad days.

In the 5 working days in between each Highland expedition I focused on solving equations and working out what heats the Sun’s outer atmosphere. Here too I had good days and bad days.

Each calculation led me down new avenues and took me to unknown places. As did each weekend’s expedition.

The mountains gave me freedom. Freedom to think. On my walks I solved many problems that had taxed me that week.

In the end I solved my equations and I climbed all the Munros. Both challenges required perseverance, hard work and belief in my own abilities. You too have shown these attributes to achieve your degrees.

I could never have managed the Munros if I had not been at St Andrews for my degree. Equally, I may never have completed my degree without the amazing thinking time the mountains afforded. Like me, you too have learnt the best way for you to overcome difficult problems.

For all of you, today is not only the end of one adventure, but it is also the start of your next. Each of you will have metaphorically climbed many mountains. You will have enjoyed the euphoria of reaching summits on the good days and will have weathered storms on the bad days, as I did.

As graduates of this University you will have mastered specific academic skills relating to your subject along with many values and principles that are shared, whatever the subject: A rigorous approach to gathering sound evidence; an ability to conduct thorough analysis; Honesty and fairness in what you do. Hold onto these values and they will serve you well.

Whatever future you have in mind, remember your time at St Andrews. Remember the determination and the perseverance with which you tackled your assignments – and the friendships that kept you going.

Finally, enjoy the rest of your day, thank your family and thank your friends for their support. Take one more, hopefully not your last, look around St Andrews and remember this wonderful University and town. Be proud of your achievements. Please come back and visit. Keep in touch and let us know how you are doing.

Professor Clare Parnell
School of Mathematics & Statistics

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