Graduation address: Professor Sally Mapstone

Friday 8 December 2017

The first thing to say to you all is immense congratulations. In graduating you achieve something that remains with you for life. You become, as I said in my opening remarks today, something that you were not before. This University marks that by putting you at the heart of its ceremonial ritual and giving each of you the opportunity to pass across the stage. From up here we can see particularly closely what that moment means to you, and we thus try to share that sense of engagement equally with each of you as you come before us to be tapped with the birretum. You do not have to do it again! Unless you take another degree of course, in which case, you will be very welcome back.

St Andrews does ritual well, stylishly, and confidently. Mistakes are rarely made, and if they are they are so well concealed that they are barely noticed. And I can tell you, there have been one or two this morning. But anyway, not all institutions have such success. At my previous institution, one slightly older than this one, Master’s graduation was marked by tapping students on the head with a copy of the Bible. The designated Bible was always there, within reach of the presiding university officers, on the podium. One day, however, mid-ceremony, it was suddenly realised that it was not. It had disappeared. Consternation was rapidly followed by improvisation. We scrabbled around as unobtrusively as possible in the pile of items under the podium, and that morning’s master’s students were solemnly tapped on the head with a copy of the Yellow Pages phone directory.

So what today’s ceremony is all about is marking the moment. We value ritual because it enables us both to cherish individuals and to include them within a time honoured process that signifies the new community of which they – you - are now a part. And we perceive you differently too, as part of one conversation closed, and another begun. One of the reasons graduation is such a joyful occasion is that collectively, this Hall is filled with hope. You have achieved a great deal but you have so much ahead of you too, and that gives everyone here optimism and a spring in their step in the parties and celebrations that follow.

Many of you – well, to be frank, all of you - will also mark this occasion with photographs – selfies, family photographs, posed graduation photographs – photographs with the macebearers, your tutors, even the Principal, who is generally happy to oblige! Some of these photos will bounce around the globe within seconds of being taken; others, more staged, will be delivered somewhat after the event. But there pretty well always is one photograph that somehow just sums it all up, more than the others, and will become the one you use as your screen saver, or you have in your home, and come back to again and again. 

And what that photo will be doing will be capturing – something special, almost timeless, and irreplaceable. For the generations above yours, memory often has to fulfil that role because the photo bonanza of today is a relatively recent thing. When I look back at my own student days, the sharpest memory I retain is one informed by very aptly chosen music, and it is not one immediately associated with graduation, but with the moment when my cohort and I at Oxford had completed the brutal regime of nine 3 hour examinations in  six days, the Final Honours School as it was known, and emerged blinking into the sunshine from a building known as the Examination Schools, along with 250 other students, to hear loudly amplified playing on to the High Street from the windows of one of our friends’ rooms, Alice Cooper’s School’s Out. The brilliant doubling up of the punning (‘School’s out completely!’), and the monstrous irreverence of the lyrics, made that instantly its own exquisite memory moment. I know you will find your equivalents, and preserve them in image, and in memory.

One of the many pleasures of being Principal and Vice-Chancellor is talking to alumni – that which you have all also just become, along with being members of the University’s General Council (and if you don’t yet know what that is, I do encourage you to find out). I meet, of course, many alumni outwith St Andrews and they speak with unremitting affection and loyalty about this wonderful place, and indeed about revisiting it, as we hope, as we know, that so many of you will do, and will carry on doing. The words alumnus, alumna, alumni, derive from the Latin verb alere meaning to nourish, and you should see your relationship with the University of St Andrews as one of continual and recurrent nourishment.  But a recurrent theme amongst our alumni is also that revisiting can be bitter sweet – the places are still there –  the three streets; the pier; the cathedral; Jannetta’s – I could go on; but the people often aren’t. The people that is, with whom you have shared the past year or years. But of course, those people can be there with you – it just takes a bit of organisation to come back to St Andrews on occasion with your friends, but many of our alumni do just that, coinciding with, for example, the University’s alumni weekend in April of each year.

So it’s up to you how you do this, but we do encourage you to come back, revisit, and mark some other moments in your lives and careers. Sometimes touching base with your past gives you a clearer sense of what you want from your future. You can do that by turning up those unforgettable photographs; or you can come back, and see what the old place has to tell you. Walking our streets, whether literally or figuratively, alone or with your friends, pausing and reflecting on happy times, challenging times, decisive times, can sharpen that sense of where you go next. These will have been some of the happiest days of your lives, but you have many more to come. And now go and enjoy them. School’s out.

Professor Sally Mapstone
Principal and Vice-Chancellor