Graduation Address: Professor Ruth Woodfield

Friday 24 June 2016


Chancellor, ladies and gentlemen, the most important thing I have to convey today is heartfelt congratulations to everyone who is graduating. Congratulations on achieving your degree. Congratulations, more particularly, on attaining your degree from this historic seat of learning and, more especially still, on attaining your degree in disciplines that show that you are oriented towards your fellow humanity, having chosen subjects that require ethical, responsible and supportive conduct. I would like to dwell a little on what graduating might mean for your future.

Generally speaking, graduating from university is associated with a number of benefits beyond achieving a certain level of mastery over the content of the course you have studied. Some of these benefits are obvious: you have an increased likelihood of employment, of higher than average wages, and higher than average workplace productivity.

There are other, less obvious, and perhaps unexpected benefits that accrue to you on graduating, including a range of health, social and political benefits. These are benefits and dispositions that you are more likely to carry through life than non-graduates, including, often, from non-graduates from similar social backgrounds.

In graduating, you will be more likely to cope with stress and distress, more likely to report higher levels of wellbeing, greater life satisfaction, and more general good health. During your life, and as you age, you will be more likely to take steps to prevent illness and to improve your health, more likely to maintain a healthy weight, for instance, and more likely to live longer. You will be less likely to smoke and drink excessively. It may be, of course, that this effect is nature’s way of compensating for the time you have spent here.

In terms of social benefits, you leave here with a greater likelihood of lasting self-confidence. You will be more able to engage with a wider range of people, more likely to trust, to vote, to feel politically empowered. You are more likely to be committed to lifelong learning, to be independent, to give a high priority in your lives to childcare and child development. You are more likely to be tolerant of others, to be open to the idea of migration and to migrants themselves, more likely to support the movement for gender and other equalities, more likely to volunteer, less likely to commit a crime. Research has even shown that you will be less likely to experience a general feeling of ’malaise’.

What a magical crucible of forces a university is, to somehow effect this alchemy as well as producing successive cohorts of students who have mastered the subject matter of their degrees. It is fair to say that we do not fully understand exactly how universities produce the wide range of benefits for their members, but one thing is certain, it has been the combined effort and action of all members of this University, including yourselves, that have produced the space where you have developed into the people you have become today.

Those who have taken primary responsibility for supporting you financially and emotionally to this point will perhaps take immediate comfort at the predictions of greater levels of independence, and higher than average earnings; but today is a day also to celebrate that you are likely to be graduating with a range of skills and characteristics to facilitate your becoming thoughtful, active, engaged and creative citizens. These additional elements should lead all of us to feel immensely proud of your achievement and optimistic about our collective future.

I would challenge the easy, self-deprecating humour that would have you graduating from ‘The Bubble’, or any implication that you have been ‘bubble wrapped’ while at university, and equally challenge any doubt that graduates from this particular university are less likely to take forward these benefits in a positive way. You have lived and learned alongside fellow students and lecturers from over 120 nations, and, due to the size, history and location of this town, you have been inescapably a part of an intense cultural melting pot of ideas and practices.

St Andrews has been one of the few universities to appoint a woman leader, Professor Louise Richardson, and has just become one of fewer still to appoint a second woman – Professor Sally Mapstone – as her successor. You have lived and learned in a town steeped in history, but one that has been very much oriented to the future, to progress and to taking brave steps down less well-trodden paths. In this ‘bubble’ you will surely have learned what Gloria Steinem put so clearly: “to divide us into groups by race, by class [and] by gender is false. We share 99 per cent of everything as human beings. Why on Earth would you put us in a box and give us a different label? It’s a deprivation. Even if people are in the ‘best’ box, it’s still a deprivation.”

I do not point out the benefits accruing to you as you graduate so that you should carry your good fortune heavily. Today is a day of celebration, pride and pleasure in your accomplishments, and long may this last. What I would hope is that, from time to time, you consciously reflect on all of the attributes that come with your degree certificate, that you use them well, that you enjoy them, nurture them, and pass them on.

By all means enjoy your higher than average salary, but also keep in mind the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, that “money often costs too much”. I hope that you use your further good fortune to help you be clear-sighted about those elements in life you feel passionately about, to help you to stand up for the things you believe in, to embolden you to live the life you want to live. Start brave and become braver.

I suspect that, given the disciplines you have studied, this hope will find fertile ground among you. That you have already chosen to graduate in degrees that are likely to see you making a positive contribution to the world around you, and to the lives of others, is to be applauded. As the late, great Muhammad Ali once said: “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth.” Your parents and guardians will understand this sentiment in a way that most of you have yet to experience, and because of this my final hope is that at some point today you raise a glass of thanks to those who are here to celebrate your achievements alongside you.

Thank you.

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