Graduation address: Dr Rebekah Widdowfield

Lauren Sykes
Wednesday 14 June 2023

Wednesday 14 June 2023
Afternoon ceremony

Vice-Chancellor, special guests, and colleagues, it is a privilege to be able to address our new graduates, and those returning from the Classes of 2020 and 2021, as well as our honorary graduate, Sam Torrance, as we come together to mark their success.

And let me begin, as is customary, by offering heartfelt congratulations to all our graduates. To achieve a degree from St Andrews is no mean feat in any year, but to have done so against the backdrop of a global pandemic is doubly impressive.

You will be receiving lots of congratulations today. Surrounded by other graduates it may be easy to lose sight of the significance of this occasion. But graduation forms one of life’s seminal moments that will stay with you long after you have left this place, and I hope that you will find a minute in the course of today to reflect on all that you have achieved and to thank those who have supported you along the way.

Universities make two main contributions to society: their research and their graduates. You. In policy debates, there is often a question about whether higher education is a public good or a private (individual) one. I would contest it is both. A degree provides you with opportunities that you otherwise would not have had, often with associated financial benefits. But at the same time, a degree provides you with the skills and knowledge to make a difference to society. As you leave St Andrews, the world is indeed your oyster, but is also your – our – responsibility.

Use your learning wisely and to good effect. With the multiplicity of challenges facing society, never more have we needed the honed critical thinking and analytical skills that come from a degree education, whether that be to address the climate challenge, to resolve conflict, or to tackle poverty and inequality.

As graduates of Geography and Sustainable Development, Computer Science, and the Graduate School, working at the interface between technology or the environment and society or across disciplines, you will know better than most the power, and indeed necessity, of bringing together different forms of knowledge to solve complex real-world challenges. Take with you into the world that understanding of the importance of connecting and connected expertise as the basis for positive change.

And take with you into the world and from your time at St Andrews not just your learning about your subject, but what you have learnt about yourself.

None of you are the same as the day you came here. You will have grown beyond measure, and you should reflect on your personal as well as your intellectual development. You have come to a new place (for some of you, thousands of miles away from home) and formed new friendships; you have lived independently – perhaps for the first time; you will have navigated – I am sure – fallings out and heartbreaks; and all of you will no doubt have stories of that caffeine-fuelled all-nighter as you toiled to get a piece of coursework in on time. But whatever the nature or depth of the challenges experienced, you have faced them head-on and come through.

And take with you into the world, what you have learnt about community. About the value of difference, about tolerance, about disagreeing respectfully, and about standing up for others and being true to your values.

June 14th is for you, a day of celebration. But 83 years ago today, June 14th marked the opening of Auschwitz concentration and death camp – perhaps the ultimate example of what can happen when bigotry and hatred go unchecked. Many students were at the vanguard of opposition to Nazism. And I want to draw to a conclusion with a few words from Sophie Scholl, a key member of the White Rose, a Nazi resistance group run by students at the University of Munich: “Stand up for what you believe in even if you are standing alone.”

St Andrews has set a very clear ambition to make the University a beacon of inclusivity, creating an environment in which everyone can flourish and realise their potential. Your graduation today is a marker of your success, but we are firmly of the view that the St Andrews experience is not just about intellectual development – critical though that is – but about supporting the growth of our students as socially responsible citizens.

I hope you may yet prove to be the generation to be able to be your authentic selves and, importantly, to create the conditions for others to do so. But whatever you do and wherever you go, be true to yourself and hold fast to your values.

Your time at the University may be coming to an end but know that you will always be a member of the St Andrews community. For now though, go fly!

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