30 Sep An Oxford Graduation: The Means Justifying the End
Graduation is an exciting culminating ceremony. It recognises a student’s effort as they are awarded an academic honour. More than recompensing one for rigorous studying , it is also a symbolic reward for the faith, energy, commitment and the indispensable support of relatives and friends . Graduation at Oxford University is solemn. It is a two tier process: handled partly at one’s college and at the central university. As per decorum, it also entails wearing two kinds of gowns. The ceremony is traditionally conducted in mostly Latin. As the Vice Chancellor noted, “The graduation Ceremony at Oxford takes its own dimension; while in some universities the ceremony can be quite informal – solemn ceremonies are proper because the university will be conferring some of its most precious honours, the degrees. “ In this blog post I will narrate my graduation day experience and explain some of the nuanced formal traditions.
I arrived at Jesus College, early in the morning. I wore the full academic dress with the subfusc (a dark suit with dark socks, plain white shirt with a plain collar and a white bow tie) as required. On arrival at the college, we the graduands, were permitted to robe in our graduation gown, however this was only for the sole purpose of taking official photographs, after which they had to be returned and taken to the changing rooms near the Sheldonian Theatre. The College also offered an assortment of drinks which ranged from fruit juices to the finest wine, in one of the college lawns with in the first quad. The quad was filled with graduating students and their guests, who were almost all suitably dressed for a formal black tie event.
After the drinks and photos we were hosted to lunch by the College Principal (Head of House), Nigel Shadbolt in the second quad. An all white tent was sent up on the lawns. It looked heavenly, the tables were covered in sparkling white cloth, you could see your reflection in the cutlery. The tables were assembled with neat evenly measured aisles for the guests to walk to their personalised seats with each bearing one’s name. Similar to Formal Hall dinners, Principal struck the gavel and the grace was recited in Latin, to mark the beginning of the festivities. We were treated to a four course meal that included a succulent salmon dish with a portion of vegetables and also chocolate and raspberries as dessert. The meal had been so neatly presented, I was very impressed to say the least.
Following desert, the Principal delivered his final speech. He urged us (the graduands) to be brave and seize opportunities, even if it meant taking risks. He remarked, “ Value your family and friends because no one regrets having not spent an extra day in the office, but they do regret having not given enough time to family and friends.” As he concluded his remarks, he instructed the graduands’ guests to proceed to the Sheldonian for the University Ceremony. He then turned to the graduands, asked us to head to the College Hall, where we would receive the “Mistress of the latin, what you have to learn” in order to please the Vice Chancellor in the Sheldonian. The Principal would not accompany us to the Sheldonian. “It is customary for the Heads of House to remain in their colleges, looking at the vast empty hall that has been created by its departure of the brightest and best,” he said.
After the briefing, we queued in pairs, and proudly strode from Jesus College, Turl Street to the Sheldoian on Broad Street. We found our guests already seated and consequently we were shown to our seats. The Vice Chancellor opened with some remarks. She congratulated the graduands. She reiterated that the degrees to be awarded represented two things. First , they certify that the number of specific skills have been tested. Second, and more importantly that the degree, reflects Oxford’s intention to promote certain qualities of mind such as intellectual self reliance, intellectual honesty and understanding. She emphasised, “ The crucial and also most difficult qualities are understanding and the ability to distinguish the truth from the seemingly true.”
The bedel read out the names of graduands and the respective degrees to be conferred in Latin. For my masters degree, we were asked to stand before the Vice Chancellor. We made three ceremonial bows. They are a sign of respect. First to the Vice Chancellor, then to the left and right of the Vice Chancellor. After that, the Vice Chancellor recited a relevant formula in latin, to which we responded “ Do fidem” (I swear). As newly admitted graduates, we made one more bow, we left the Sheldonian by the door to the right and went to a room to put on the robes of our new degree (graduation gown.)
Listening to the Latin Recitals from the Vice Chancellor, before replying “Do fidem”
After putting on our robes, we queued up waiting for the doors to be opened. Once they opened, we were met by applause and cheers. Preceded by a bedel we returned and walked back in, directly facing the Vice Chancellor. This was a moment to savour. I walked slowly, taking in all the cheers and applause which marked the admission and appreciation for the year of unexplainable commitment. We stood before the Vice Chancellor and made one more bow. We were then guided back to our seats.
It was special. Few moments have left me profoundly humbled – walking into the Sheldonian, and being met by a cheerful roar and applause is one of them. I am grateful for the support of my mother, my siblings, relatives and friends that saw me through this year. In Jesus College, I found a family, and to my classmates, as the years melt away, I know I will look back with affection for the time we spent together. The spirited discussions in seminars, the concurrent essays, analysis of some of the most complex legal questions and problems – surely, the most intellectually challenging experience of my life. The solemn graduation ceremony is the University’s way of appreciating the years of planning and hard work that have gone into attaining this master’s degree, and rightly so.