Graduation Address – Stephen Gillespie

Friday 22 June 2012

Chancellor, Principal, Ladies and Gentlemen

There is no doubt that graduation is a pivotal moment in your life, an evolutionary progression, a rite of passage.

Beowulf is the eponymous tale of a hero’s journey to the land of the Geats, where he engages and slays the monster Grendel who had been terrorizing the land. Seamus Heaney, an honorary graduate of this university, spends a number of paragraphs of his introduction to his translation discussing the first word of the epic – Hwaet. The problem is, that it has no direct translation into English. Previous versions have translated with archaic words Lo, Hark, Behold or Listen. Rather, Heaney is forced back on an Ulster heritage – a minority dialect part Scots. He hears this word in the voice of his “big voiced” relatives on the farm whose words came across with “weighty directness”. They would often introduce their statements with the word “so”.   An exclamation Heaney describes, “which obliterates all previous discourse and narrative” a word “calling for immediate attention.”

So. You have graduated. The previous discourses are obliterated. This is the moment for you to be the centre of attention. This is your rite of passage colourful and dignified that allows your teachers, your parents, friends and your supporters to celebrate with you in the University Hall, although I trust that the graduation garden party will be less rowdy and have fewer swords than the hall that features in Beowulf.

This is a chance to reflect on your achievement entering the University passing the examinations and graduating today. You will remember the support of your family and friends and the work that the university staff have done in bringing you to this day. Like Beowulf you may have crossed the sea to a strange land. In passing your exams you may have, as it were, slain Grendel. You will also have learned many life skills and friend skills, but now for most it is the time to load your long-ship and sail home. The question is, what treasure will you take with you?

Although you may wish to take your friends they will not all fit into the boat, yet you will have made a bond with them that will last for the rest of your lives.

You should take a treasure chest of knowledge, but more importantly, you must pack the means by which to acquire more and to go beyond that which we have taught you here.

You may take photographs, theatre programmes and scarves that will remind you that, in the future although your hair may thin and change colour and gravity has a negative on your beauty you will still view the world through the same eyes.

Pack some ambition, ambition that lifts your eyes to broader horizons and cheers the heart with a purpose for living. Ambition that, when partnered with compassion and fairness, will change our future world.

Make room in your long-ship for your pipe dreams, your unanswered questions and your curiosity. Take them home, sort them out, prioritise them and try them on for size. Some will fit now; others may have to wait for later revelation. Store your memories of St Andrews carefully but don’t let them gather dust too long.

Take some courage with you. That will be an essential component of your future success. For Beowulf, the first battle with Grendel was the easy part. It was Grendel’s mother who was the real challenge. Having fought the monster, the job was not yet finished. So pack some tenacity with you too.

St Andrews is a small university that can only survive by virtue of excellence. Our motto is “ever to excel” and so you should take this as our instruction to you as journey from us. Mid-way through our 600th anniversary celebrations we can reflect on our past. This university has not gained its position by chance but by ambition, courage, and a determination to answer the unanswered questions. If those who follow us are to celebrate in like manner the students and staff of today will need the tenacity to continue a diet of endeavour that brings excellence in scholarship, research, teaching, and academic innovation.

You will have heard from the laureation addresses that our honorary graduates have shown characteristics of ambition, courage, tenacity and more. Today, we celebrate their achievements and hold them up to you as an example and as a target for you to outdo.

Hwaet! So! You have graduated. It is the future now that calls for immediate attention. Your teachers and the whole staff of the University are proud of your achievement and we now send you off to excel in your chosen field with, ambition, courage and tenacity.

Stephen Gillespie
School of Medicine

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