Dr. Gerry Turcotte

FIGURE OF SPEECH

July 7, 2014

"Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart."

Colossians 3.23

Like many of my fellow presidents I had the honour recently of speaking at our university's convocation. As so often happens, I spent a fair amount of time thinking about the structure of the event, what my speech would focus on and how we would ensure that our students had a perfect day.

Once the event was over, though, I was struck (as I always am) by the sense of shared joy that permeated the reception.

It reminded me that although we are celebrating an individual's accomplishment, marked by a fleeting crossing of a stage and the acquisition of a valued piece of parchment, the reality is that few people achieve such glory on their own.

Certainly the speeches make this clear. "I want to thank my mother, my father, my aunts and uncles, Rotary or the CWL for their support."

It is also visible in the joy parents and loved ones bring to the occasion. The icing on the cake is that magical moment when a child of a graduating parent shouts: "There's my Mum!" from the audience as she crosses the stage. Just as clear is the look of pride on faces of staff and faculty when "their" students receive their due.

Why are convocations important? Universities trace their origin to the Church, which, in the Middle Ages was responsible for higher learning. Many of society's scholars were monks, and anyone wanting more than a rudimentary education joined a monastery.

MASKING POVERTY

It is has been argued that the academic robes emerged from this early time, in large part because of the poverty of students who could not afford appropriate clothing.

The robes masked this paucity. As the ceremonies developed, the hood was added to academic robes to invoke the legacy of the monks, with colours used to differentiate the discipline of study.

HALO OF LIGHT

Perhaps the strangest item in the regalia is the square-shaped mortarboard, said by some to symbolize a "nimbus," a halo of light surrounding a learned person. The convocation ceremony itself is age-old, with the tradition of assembling graduates to award degrees dating back to 1577 and Oxford University.

Saying that convocations are an age-old ceremony, however, doesn't explain the event's importance. Repetition and tradition do not, in and of themselves, make something meaningful. If that were true many compulsory events in totalitarian cultures would resonate more strongly.

PASSION AND ANTICIPATION

Rather, the assembly of people to join in celebration and acknowledgement gains meaning through its connection to passion and anticipation.

Convocation is Latin for "calling together," and it is in this sense that meaning accrues to the beauty of celebration – we are gathering to acknowledge, honour and encourage.

It is equally a celebration of achievement and a call to arms – an invocation to go forward and to do great things with the privilege that is an education. In this sense there can be few things as exciting, as honourable and as meaningful as a ceremony such as this one, that celebrates tradition and the future – achievements done and accomplishments yet to come.

(Dr. Gerry Turcotte is president, St. Mary's University College in Calgary.)