Graduation address: Professor Aileen Fyfe

Lauren Sykes
Thursday 15 June 2023

Thursday 15 June 2023

Afternoon ceremony

Vice- Chancellor, special guests, colleagues and, of course, graduates! On behalf of all my colleagues, it is my very great pleasure to congratulate you on your achievement, and to offer you our good wishes for the future. I extend those congratulations to all those who have supported you along the way: your family, friends, and others who have helped.

I am sure many of you are finding that today’s occasion stimulates some reflection on endings and beginnings, on transitions and changes. Graduation ceremonies are, after all, regarded as one of the modern ‘rites of passage’. And, in that brief moment when the Vice-Chancellor spoke the Latin words et super te upon you, you ceased to be a ‘student’ and became a ‘graduate’.

Today is a recognition of your achievements – and an excellent excuse for a celebration – but I want to reassure you that it is a transition and not an end point. You will not stop learning when you walk out of the doors of the hall later this afternoon. Nor will you lose your connection to the place or the people of St Andrews, even if your future journey takes you far away.

Recently, I received an invitation from my own alma mater inviting me to a reunion marking 30 years since my matriculation. I confess that this has brought on a certain amount of reflection about what I owe to my time at university. And I am conscious that the way I assess that now is necessarily different from how it seemed then, when I sat where you now sit.

At the moment of my own graduation, there were certainly some things that seemed likely to make a difference to my future: in particular, my decision to switch subjects from biochemistry to history seemed likely to have career-changing consequences, as indeed it did. I am sure you, too, can already identify some ways in which St Andrews has changed you.

But there are other things I owe to my university years whose significance became apparent only much later. For instance, the connections I made in my postgraduate years would lay the basis for the professional networks that have supported me throughout my career in academia. More ambiguously, it was also at university that I learned to drink coffee, and I am sure we could have a fascinating discussion about the long-term impact of that – socially and medically.

Hindsight – or some historical distance – does tend to make it easier to see the extent or significance of changes that may not be so apparent when one is actually living through them, day by day.

We can see this in the history of our own University.

This is the same University as the one founded just over 600 years ago – and yet it is, equally clearly, very different from that mediaeval foundation. There has been no single dramatic revolutionary moment – but rather an accumulation of changes that, over time, have turned St Andrews into a modern University. For instance, our curriculum has expanded with the addition of such ‘new’ subjects as ‘History’ and ‘Modern Languages’, as well as ‘Chemistry’ and ‘Neuroscience’. ‘Research’ has joined ‘teaching’ as one of our core activities. And our community has both grown and diversified: the number of women here today (both as graduates and staff), and the variety of national costumes crossing the stage this week are among the most visible ways in which our University has changed since its foundation.

But I would draw your attention to the way in which this transformation has involved an ongoing, gradual accretion of new things, that overlay but do not entirely erase what went before.

Today’s graduation ceremony encapsulates that beautifully: we still use our mediaeval maces, our Latin phrases, and our Vice-Chancellor (though obviously, not the same one!); but this mediaeval core to the ceremony has been augmented by an early-modern cloth cap and some nineteenth-century re-imaginings of academic costume, as well as by the new degrees and subjects of the twentieth century.

This ceremony, like the University, and – I believe – like all of us, has changed by repeatedly adding something new to the foundation of the old. The modern University has adapted to the changing years, but the legacy of its past remains part of its core identity. And you too will carry the legacy of your time at St Andrews with you as you go forward in your life journey.

As a historian, I am far better at analysing the past than predicting the future, and so I cannot say exactly which aspects of your time here will remain part of your enduring core – a thought-provoking seminar discussion or lab session, a friendship or a new skill gained, a heated debate, the discovery of coffee or golf, or a moment of calm reflection on the beach…

Nonetheless, I am confident that, though you may be leaving St Andrews today, St Andrews will remain a part of you, whatever else you go on to build on its foundation in the years to come.

For now, let me repeat my congratulations, and wish you all the very best of luck in your onward journeys, wherever they take you!

Thank you.

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