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Graduation address – Professor Lorna Milne

Menzies Campbell and St Salvator's Mace

Wednesday 30 November 2011, 12.30pm


Vice-Chancellor, Ladies and Gentlemen, and of course: new Graduates of the University,

Congratulations. You have had an excellent education, and you have done tremendously well to meet the high standards required of you to graduate today. You finished your studies a couple of months ago (or more), and it’s a pleasure to us that you have chosen to come back to St Andrews, on St Andrews day, to mark your achievement, and to round off the episode in your life that has led to the Degree certificate you’re holding in your hands. You’ve come from all over the world, and I know too that some of the students who were unable to join us will be listening to this ceremony in places as different from St Andrews as Bei Jing and Birmingham. I’d like to extend the University’s good wishes to them too.

Today is a day of completion and closing for you. For many of you, this is the last time you will ever have to listen to a talk by a St Andrews professor – or sing ‘gaudeamus igitur’, or perhaps even wear a tie. For some of you, it’s the last time you will ever be in St Andrews. You will leave here tonight or tomorrow, meaning to return one day; but then your life will become busy, there will be other places to discover, and before you know it, you’ll wake up in 2061 and realise that you will probably never walk along Market Street again.

I hope, whether you return to see us again or not, you’ll keep some vivid memories of your time here. This last year alone has been an eventful one. Do you remember this time last year when the snow came? And it was so beautiful – at least for the first 24 hours. You probably remember some of our important visitors: Gordon Brown, David Attenborough, even Prince William and Kate Middleton as she was then. Perhaps you’ll have memories of other St Andrews celebrations: the big party in the Quad for the royal wedding; or swimming in the sea at 6 in the morning on May Day; or Raisin Weekend… well, perhaps on second thoughts you won’t remember that much about Raisin Weekend… But you no doubt have a wide store of personal memories too: messing about in the kitchen with your friends; getting a really good grade; getting a less good one; walking on the west sands; revising for your exams with the sunshine outside and the smell of cut grass at the window.

While your personal recollections will be very varied, I think one thing that will unite them is the beauty of this place where you’ve all lived together for a time. For me, perhaps the loveliest thing about St Andrews is the light. Now, I admit that there are days in January and February where the only light you’ll see here is electric. I don’t mean that. What I’m thinking of are the big skies that change all the time, and the way they shift from sharp Autumn silver with the geese flying over, to soft greys in winter and postcard blues in summer.

So as you gently close the door on the studies that brought you here today, and as you turn round to look at the new horizons ahead of you, the thing I’d like to give to all of you today is that picture of light over St Andrews. We can all share in it: there really is a version of it for each of us because it’s constantly altering, ambiguous, magical, and full of possibilities. You will forget most of what I’ve said to you today – but do try to remember that one image.

Because as graduates of this University, you now have a demanding task ahead of you. And that is, whatever your occupation in future, always to use your education, in the broadest sense. You will be friends, colleagues and partners; you may be parents or carers; some of you will have dazzling professional careers, others will take a more modest route. But whatever you do, I hope you’ll carry with you the values and skills you have deepened here and that we all share: an ability to analyse, a rigorous approach to evidence, a dedication to integrity and a respect for fairness. Those are absolute principles, shiny, firm and clear: but we do know that circumstances can make clarity difficult, dangerous; and firmness turned into rigidity is rarely productive.

So whatever you do in the future, hold onto those bright, solid values – but know, as the educated know, how to temper them with subtlety of judgement, like a sprinkling of shifting St Andrews light; and keep your mind always open, like our wide Fife skies.

And I wish you all the success and satisfaction you will surely deserve.

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