© OLD SAGE HANDS

Traditions lost: My virtual graduation

In Food For Thought on June 11, 2021 at 1:33 pm

For parents and students alike, there are few milestones in life as eagerly anticipated as graduation day. Whether you’ve completed high school, earned a college certificate or university degree, it’s a time of celebration and a day to mark your achievements. 

As someone who just received a master of fine arts, I realize I’ve come to the end of one road, but it’s the start of a new journey. Like all recent grads, I hope it leads to greater job and earning prospects in this ongoing pandemic economy. As writers, we can all dream. 

Yet somehow as I settled down in front of my computer, and navigated the various Facebook live and YouTube links, by the time they called my name, it all seemed very anti-climactic.

It certainly wasn’t the graduation I had envisioned when I signed up for grad school at the University of King’s College two years ago. As a finale, it was the opposite of my undergrad years at Ryerson decades ago. I still remember that sunny day: Nervously I rushed to pick up my gown at the assigned time and meeting point. Each graduating class lined up in alphabetical order and shuffled off to our seats where we patiently waited. Before it was our turn to parade across the stage and collect our parchments, there were bagpipers playing and inspiring speeches. A day filled with formalities – the epitome of pomp and ceremony for the benefit of all the students who had persevered with their studies, and friends and family who came to witness this acknowledgement of our accomplishments.

Without the companionship or comradery, one would expect for such an important ceremony, there’s something surreal about a virtual graduation. It felt like a symbol of traditions lost. There was no procession in academic regalia, no skyward tossing of mortarboards, no barrage of outdoor photos, no after party. It seemed strange to join hundreds of casual onlookers who tuned in live when I did, while others like my mom watched the replay. Did these fellow students huddle alone before their screens? Were they lacking a crowd of supporters and like myself informally outfitted in sweatpants? I wondered. 

In any case, the online event managed to inspire a sense of reflection and I found myself in quiet contemplation afterwards. On completing the arduous task of achieving our graduation goals, no doubt some students felt triumphant, refreshed and invigorated, while others may have felt cheated, and instead experienced melancholy and sentimental thoughts. 

If this pandemic has taught us anything, we have learned that even the loftiest of ivory towers can dismantle their centuries-old models and re-envision new practices. If one of the oldest academic institutions in Canada can pivot to an online learning model in record time, there’s no telling what other shifts can be made to affect important reforms. Although virtual classrooms are not for everyone, they have created more opportunities to access education without the additional costs of travel and residence. While affordable tuition continues to be an issue, these feats alone are worth celebrating. 

During my degree some of the most memorable moments happened outside of the classroom before lockdown interfered with the lives of countless students. Unexpected expanses of knowledge were somehow absorbed through osmosis, distilled through an opportune coffee break or chance meeting. Though I would have preferred to continue participating in person rather than be holed up inside my home office and tethered to a digital portal, I’m forever grateful to the university faculty, my mentors and classmates – fellow seekers on a voyage through reading, writing and higher learning.

I plan to return to those halls of academia sometime in the near future – if only to revisit the place where this journey began. Of course, this experience won’t be forgotten any time soon (my student loan payments will provide an ongoing reminder). Despite all these disruptions our eyes have been opened to limitless possibilities. Education has been our conduit to new ideas and innovation. Will we leave behind a legacy of positive change or a lasting impact for the better? It’s something to consider as we rush out into the future.

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