Graduation Address: Dr Claire Whitehead, School of Modern languages

Graduation Office
Wednesday 12 June 2024

Wednesday 12 June 2024 – afternoon ceremony

Vice-Chancellor, special guests, colleagues, and graduates, it is an honour to be addressing you today as we turn the page from one chapter of life to the next.

Each year, my colleagues and I are touched that so many of you, as well as your families and friends, travel from near and far to be with us for graduation. I would venture to say that it is even sweeter today because so many of you missed out on St Andrews’ pomp and circumstance when you first arrived. If you began your degree in September 2020, you did so when St Andrews, like so many other universities, was doing its best to adapt to the constraints imposed by Covid: social distancing; regular testing and isolating; online and then hybrid classes; and the unending joy of trying to remember to unmute before speaking on Teams.

No welcome ceremony here in Younger Hall; no real Freshers’ week to begin your life at university; and little idea of what the lower part of people’s faces looked like under their masks! Given how disrupted the beginning of your degree was, I am especially pleased we have the chance to celebrate in person with you today. Although I am wary of any attempts to put a positive spin on the pandemic, it is unquestionably the case that your generation of students had to display enormous resilience at a crucial time of transition in your lives.

And resilience is just one of the qualities honed at St Andrews that we hope you will now take out into the world as you move onto your next destination.

I am not sure how the algorithm that puts students together for graduation ceremonies works, but it seems somehow fitting to have Modern Languages and Computer Science together this afternoon. Given my audience, I did consider asking Artificial Intelligence to write this address using a combination of Python and Spanish, but then thought better of it. What strikes me though is how these two subject areas are united by a desire to use languages to facilitate communication and community in an increasingly interconnected but polarised world.

Forgive me if I focus on Modern Languages first for just a moment. Whilst today is a time of celebration, we should not ignore the fact that you are graduating from a subject area under significant pressure in the UK. The status and uptake of languages at secondary level has been diminishing for a number of years and, in the past twelve months, Single Honours language degrees at another Scottish university have been cut, leading to voluntary redundancies.

At St Andrews we are rightly proud to offer one of the widest ranges of Modern Languages in UK higher education because that fits with our outward-looking, collaborative, global ambitions. Because studying foreign languages is about so much more than vocabulary, grammar and declension tables; it says a great deal about how you see the world. It speaks to an openness to others, a willingness to meet them halfway and to listen to a polyphony of voices that have so much to tell us: about history, politics, literature, culture, human rights, the environment, etc.

What’s more, the benefits of language learning are long lasting: one study has claimed that language students retain around 70% of their vocabulary after 25 years despite not using it in the interim. So, be ready for one of my colleagues to get in touch when you are in your late 40s to ask if you can remember the words for ‘graduation ceremony’ in Persian or Russian.

For those of you in Computer Science, I invite you to try to imagine what your discipline might look like when you reach your late 40s. I am a little older than that but have just had the unnerving experience of visiting a technology museum and seeing my kids point incredulously at the relics of a bygone electronic age, relics I still have in a drawer at home.

Can any of us predict where fields in which St Andrews excels, such as health informatics, intelligent interactive systems and programming languages, will be in the year 2050? In 1971, the first year that students graduated from Computer Science here, the Distinguished Lecture was delivered by Andries van Dam, who is still on the faculty at Brown University. His lecture was entitled simply Graphics but I doubt even he could have foreseen how hypertext systems would have influenced browsing technology in the intervening decades.

Like Professor van Dam, what my colleagues here have always emphasised is the importance of learning with new technologies as they emerge, making sure that the technologies themselves do not dominate, but that they always work in harmony with human subjects.

And that insistence on the human is key. Whatever you have studied at St Andrews and at whichever level, we have encouraged you to be creative and innovative, to solve problems in imaginative and agile ways and to reap the benefits of interdisciplinarity and collaborative working. But more than anything, what we hope we have made clear is that your greatest asset is your humanity. There is a temptation sometimes to talk about the world after university as if it were some sort of abstraction. But it is not. It is a world full of what Mary Norton called in The Borrowers ‘human beans’, with all their idiosyncrasies, their sensitivities and their weaknesses.

In a world facing its present conflicts and its future challenges, what we need is for you to get out there with all your brilliance, your empathy and, most of all, your humanity and do your best.

Congratulations once again and thank you.

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