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“You’re gonna make it after all”: reflecting on graduation as a mature student

Virtual convocation blues and hope for the future
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In an unorthodox November graduation, graduates did not walk through the doors of Convocation Hall.SAMANTHA YAO/THE VARSITY
In an unorthodox November graduation, graduates did not walk through the doors of Convocation Hall.SAMANTHA YAO/THE VARSITY

Graduation. The desire to graduate has haunted me for much of my life, and now, it is within my grasp. 

At age 42, I will finally graduate from university. What began as an exploration into formal education after becoming a mother became a passion, an opportunity to see what my brain was capable of, and I have enjoyed the experience immensely. 

I will miss the young students who always made me feel welcome and who, in many ways, mentored me — the older student with ‘good mom energy’ throughout university. 

I will not, however, miss needing to work late into the evenings after my children are in bed and I am bone tired. Nor will I miss backaches, neck strain, and feeling self-conscious for smelling like RUB-A535 while sitting in class — a student once exclaimed, “It smells like my grandma in here!”

I will not miss studying before a deadline. However, give me a cup of piping hot coffee and time to learn rather than memorize and I am geekily content and often joyful. Going back to school at my age and stage in life was a privilege I do not take for granted. 

The pandemic has changed the way my life as an undergraduate will end, and I regret not being able to have my daughters, ages seven and four, see me turn my tassel on commencement day with a charming mix of spunk and glee à la Mary Tyler Moore. 

That is how I always imagined that ceremonious day, anyway. My daydream always involves me pulling my girls aside to share that learning is a lifelong experience, and imploring them to never let anything get in the way of acquiring an education. I always tear up when I think of this, even now as I contemplate my formal end as a student and the beginning of my life as a graduate. 

Now, I look forward to the exciting and humbling opportunities that await me as a middle-aged person starting a new career, and I cannot help but become nostalgic on the meaning of my time at university. I was fortunate to have excellent professors who inspired me — except for that one blowhard. Unfortunately, there is always one. 

However, there is a particular professor whose professionalism, congeniality, and humour made a profound change in the way I regarded myself as a student and world citizen. I took three courses with Alan Stanbridge that helped me look critically at my understanding of and relationship with society and culture. My passion for music and the ways in which I value culture were stoked rather than stifled, which is not always the case in a formal learning environment. 

One day, as I fumbled unsuccessfully through an argument, I found myself frustrated by my inability to articulate my thoughts persuasively. Later, when we had moved on to another topic, I interrupted class to ask if I could have another chance at making my point. I was given the green light and through the process of stumbling over my argument, I found my voice as a student and learned to take my time as I thought out loud. Stanbridge smiled and, to paraphrase him, said, “You are right, and I wish I had thought of your example because it is an excellent one.” 

I only vaguely remember the actual argument I made that day. However, what I do clearly remember is being given time and space to formulate my thinking and being rewarded with encouragement. I no longer viewed myself as a passive student, but rather as someone who could actively contribute. It is moments like these that I went to university for. 

Now, stuck inside thanks to the curse of COVID-19, I find myself wondering how the meaning of my time at university might change over the years. Will I still hate and miss the same things? Will I have regrets that I cannot currently contemplate? Hindsight is 20/20, so what might I think of the year 2020, which saw me complete my last courses while trying to keep my family safe and sane during tumultuous yet tedious times?

To my fellow graduates, although we will not have an in-person convocation ceremony in which we can revel in our accomplishments and the pride of our loved ones, take a moment to celebrate. If you have no hat to toss, then do like Mary and toss a cap of another sort. Like her, “You’re gonna make it after all.” In fact, you already have.