Graduation address – Stephen Gillespie

Friday 24 June 2011

Chancellor, Principal, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Our graduation ceremony is steeped in formality, grandeur and history. It is intended to allow us to stop briefly and mark a significant event in all our lives. At this moment, however, it is possible that we are starting to think about the end of the formal proceedings, the graduation lunch and perhaps some days in the future, a holiday. When I was a student an “Inter-rail” tour was the goal, – the grand tour on less than ten dollars a day. I remember well that moment when I stepped out of the Santa Lucia station in Venice and saw the Grand Canal for the first time. Seeing the Vaporetti and gondolas, the evening sun glinting on the water and the magnificent buildings I was amazed. Amazed that I had come here to this apparently magical place unlike any other. This was for me was a “Venice Moment” when I stopped and reflected how I had come to this point. This nomenclature is not inappropriate as one of the myths for the origin of the name Venice is that it comes from the latin verb venio and is a corruption of “I have come here”. The founders of the city were Romans escaping the invading Huns and later Lombards. They had come to the Lagoon to find safety by the sea in a remote corner of Italy.

To those who are graduating today this may be a “Venice Moment” a chance for you to reflect on your achievement surrounded by friends and family. At this important time of your life you will remember the effort that you have put in to passing “A levels”, “highers” or International Baccalaureate. You will be grateful,, no doubt, for the support that your family and friends have given you, enabling you to take you place here at St Andrews. You will have learned to live independently. You will have applied yourselves to studying and achieving the degree that you now hold in your hand. You will think about your university teachers who have helped you and some of who are here to celebrate your success with you. No doubt, you will ponder on all of the friends that you have made during your time here.  These are substantial achievements that go beyond the words written on your degree certificate. Many of the skills you have learned and the friends you have made will remain with you for the rest of your lives.

Yet no-one remembers Venice for its foundation, or the refugees who escaped the “barbarian” invaders in the fifth century, indeed the origins of the city are shrouded in mystery and legend. Rather, it is remembered for the magnificent achievements that occurred after its foundation. We remember the architecture of Petro Bassegio the builder of the Doge’s Palace, or Andrea Palladio builder of palaces; the music of Claudio Monteverdi and of Antonio Vivaldi; the art of Titian, and of Tintoretto. It is remembered not only for high art but for more prosaic achievements. Its organized shipbuilding operation and weapons manufacturing in the “Arsenale” was copied through out Europe. It was, for example, an unrivalled centre for innovative glass and mirror manufacture. In the same way, although it is right to stop, take stock and celebrate this moment in your career, it is what happens afterwards that is important.

At the start of our sixth hundredth anniversary we at St Andrews also need to stop and think about the origins of the university and celebrate our founders who established this institution in a remote part of the country near the sea. Like “La Serenissima”, St Andrews can look back on a distinguished history of achievement by its staff and graduates and we trust our founders would be proud of us.  There is much to celebrate. Yet, these days are challenging with major storms in the economy and threats in the university world.   The future is uncertain. A small elite university such as St Andrews can only survive on a diet of hard work that produces excellence in scholarship, research, teaching, and academic innovation. The glowing future that we all seek depends on all of the University staff and the achievement of you, its new graduates.

So. Today, surrounded by your teachers, friends and family, there is time for a moment for reflection on what has brought you to this point, and an opportunity to celebrate the achievement of your degree. Yet, we must now look forward and establish our futures by further outstanding achievement. We are all proud of what you have done already, and we encourage you all to make us prouder still.   This may be a “Venice Moment” but now is the time to go further and build something better yet.

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